Bent on safety

Saturday, May 11, 2002

The deaths of three athletes this year have reinforced the statistics.

Pole vaulting is the most dangerous event in high school and college sports.

The National Federation of High Schools has launched new efforts to raise the bar on safety, and that could lead to an increase in the size of the landing pad next year and the addition of a padded collar around the vault box, itself responsible for injuries. There have also been discussions on the required use of helmets, since all three deaths were because of head injuries suffered on hard surfaces.

But despite dangers, competitors and coaches say the event can be as safe as any other.

Jimmy Fox, a 1996 state champion in the event at Central and now pole vault coach at his alma mater, says serious injuries don't occur often.

"People have been pole vaulting for a long time," Fox said. "I wouldn't say we should necessarily condemn the sport because there's been three severe tragedies just this year. There have been tragedies over the years. It doesn't mean vaulting has become more dangerous."

According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, 15 fatal pole vaulting accidents occurred in United States high schools between 1983 and 2000. There were seven permanent disability injuries and six serious injuries. Although one of this year's deaths occurred to a college athlete, college deaths are rarer, often because of skill level, equipment and training.

While deaths occur in other high school sports, pole vaulting may have the highest catastrophic injury rate per competitor. In 2000, it was estimated there were more than 25,000 high school pole vaulters. By comparison, more than 1.5 million athletes participated in high school and junior high football.

"There's a chance in any sport for severe injury," Fox said. "I think that's part of the attraction toward the sport. You're taking your body pretty high in the air and trying to stay in control."

Central coach Lawrence Brookins said it takes a different type of athlete to participate in the event. The risk, he said, is part of the appeal.

"Part of the glamour of some of these events in track is the risk," Brookins said. "These kids have the guts to sacrifice their body and take the risk. Not everybody can do that."

That said, Southeast Missouri has been remarkably void of serious injuries.

Brookins has been with the Central program for six years, three as head coach of the boys and girls track teams. He knocks on wood when discussing an uneventful past in the pole vault.

"Any injuries most of our kids have had, they hurt themselves doing other things," Brookins said. "A hurdler has risk every time he or she goes over a flight of hurdles. Kids call it 'crashing and burning.' Some kids have been hurt bad as a result. I've seen kids get hurt high jumping."

Central senior Becky Komorech, whose father vaulted in high school, is among a growing number of girls to take up the sport over the past seven years. She recently set a school record in the event.

"The biggest thing people say is "Isn't that so scary?' "We just say if you know how to jump right and do what your supposed to do, you can't get hurt."

Passing the bar exam

Bob Sink has coached track at Jackson High School for 25 years and has not dealt with any serious injuries related to pole vaulting.

"It can be a dangerous event, but if it is coached properly, with correct equipment and safe facilities, it can be very gratifying and very exciting," Sink said.

While safety improvements are welcome, receiving proper teaching on technique is one of the best preventative measures to injury, coaches say.

Fox began vaulting in eighth grade and competed in college for Tennessee and Southeast and completed his career without injury "because I was taught right and taught how to minimize risk," he said.

Resources with injury prevention guidelines are available to coaches. As a basic tool, MSHSAA produces a booklet for coaches on correct procedure. Camps, clinics, pole vaulting schools and knowledgeable colleagues are also popular sources for education.

"Probably the most important thing is to be informed and be sure to research and go somewhere that you can learn the correct techniques," Sink said.

But even with an abundance of resources available, not all coaches take advantage.

"I have a concern when I see coaches trying to get points and don't know much about it. Some coaches aren't willing to learn about it," Fox said, "and they still try to make the kids go out and compete. That scares me. It's not good for the sport."

Basic safety

According to coaches, two big keys to dodge injury: Avoid the box and the standards.

Fox said athletes are taught to hang on to the pole to avoid the box. When a person holds on, they fall to either side and away from the box, which holds the plant end of the pole.

"I've seen kids who, if they stall out on the vault, just let go of the pole," Fox said. "If you're right over the box and let go of the pole, that's where you're going to land. People who know about the sport and are doing it right, appreciate how the box is made now. And the people that respect it know not to land in it."

Safety improvement has been a work in progress for years. Thirty years ago, vaulters landed feet first in hay bales.

Regulations about the weight of competitors and size of poles have been implemented in recent years to help prevent poles from snapping. The pit pad has been expanding, and now padding is required on uneven surfaces in the surrounding pit area.

The biggest issue ahead may be helmets. For now, they're rare in pole vaulting.

"The pits being larger would be good," Komorech said. "I'm not so big on wearing helmets."

Fox said he's not opposed to helmets, but said the ones he's seen are too big and need modifications.

"It takes a little getting used to," Brookins said. "But like anything else, the good athletes will find a way to work through that initial distraction."

Helmets may not be popular now, but may play a part in the event's survival. Another sport considered dangerous -- the javelin throw -- has been dropped in many states. Iowa and Alaska already do not sanction high school pole vaulting.

"I'm afraid it might happen to pole vaulting someday," Fox said. "I sure hope not."

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