By Marta Lawrence
Pole vault has tempted athletes since ancient Greece to defy gravity and push the limits of the sport, but as technology has taken modern athletes to new heights, safety considerations have become a greater priority.
Following the death last year of Robert Zhongjie Yin, a Grinnell pole vault student-athlete, the NCAA this spring hosted a meeting of representatives from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), USA Track and Field (USATF) and expert coaches in the sport, including Grinnell’s longtime coach Will Freeman. Midwest Conference Commissioner Chris Graham also attended.
Similar meetings took place after Kevin Dare, a Penn State track and field student-athlete, slid down his pole at the 2002 Big Ten Indoor Track and Field Championships and crashed his head against the steel box used to plant the pole. Like Yin, Dare died from his injuries.
The discussion and education at those events, and others like them, is building awareness to create greater safety in one of track and field’s marquee events.
In 2002, the same year as Dare’s death, the pit for pole vault was expanded by a new ASTM standard, but because Dare’s accident took place at the planting box, the expanded pit did not have an effect. The change in the pit was aimed at reducing injuries from missing the pit both off the back and on the sides, a common factor in many injuries.
Since the pit was expanded, catastrophic injuries have been reduced. There have been three deaths, including Yin’s, and five catastrophic injuries have been sustained by collegiate pole vaulters since the pit change. Three of the injured athletes fully recovered, according to statistics from the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.
Participants at the NCAA summit agreed that the main safety goal for every vaulter should be to land safely in the center of the landing pad. A few promising concepts presented at the recent NCAA meeting might encourage that practice.
Those recommendations included designating a safety or warning landing zone within which an athlete must land with at least his or her head and one shoulder. If the athlete fails to land in the zone, the official could allow a coach and athlete intervention meeting before the next attempt.
If the vault did not improve, the athlete could be disqualified. This approach would allow for corrections and deciding whether the athlete or environment is appropriate for jumping again.
The experts also discussed whether to count run-ups at missed attempts. The sprint to the vault consumes energy and adds to fatigue, which can contribute to injury. To mitigate the risk, the group suggested counting run-ups as misses.
After Yin’s death, Grinnell has added pads to protect vaulters around the outside of the pit that would expand its dimensions even further than those offered with the pit expansion of 2002. Because the school could not find pads specifically manufactured for pole vaulting, the athletics department purchased 8-inch gymnastics mats that were specially manufactured to Velcro around the pit.
Freeman uses the mats in all practices and competitions. His team even travels with them and requires hosts to install the mats before Grinnell vaulters compete.
The first time the mats were used, Freeman said a pole vaulter from another school landed directly on the additional padding, likely preventing a serious injury.
Penn State also uses additional mats around its pit, similar to those used at Grinnell.
Installing additional padding may prevent injuries, but it also might make vaulters less likely to consciously control their landings, said Jan Johnson, a two-time Olympic pole vault medalist. Athletes seem to have less respect for the ground since the expansion and addition of the padding in 2002, he said.
Johnson currently operates pole vaulting camps around the country and said he has noticed athletes paying less attention to where they fall because they have a false sense of security due to the expanded pit area. He does not believe padding is the ultimate solution.
However, additional padding in the area of the plant box such as a box collar could help attenuate forces if an athlete stalls and falls down the pole or rolls back toward the runway, as Dare did.
Johnson also said technological advances in the sport, especially with the poles, have made it easier for less-skilled athletes to participate. Johnson is especially concerned about where an athlete grips the pole. Gripping higher on the pole means a greater bend and more thrust to propel the athlete forward.
“At the end of the day it’s the kid who decides where to grip on that pole,” Johnson said. “We need to eliminate ‘grip and rip.’ ”
The group discussed creating a student-athlete responsibility statement that acknowledges the athlete’s participation in a sport that has an element of risk. The goal would be to help make athletes more responsible for their own safety in the same way that gymnasts are responsible for checking their equipment.
The statement of risk would also require the athlete to demonstrate basic vaulting technique.
Training student-athletes in proper technique can only happen, however, if the pole vault coach understands the good training techniques. Greg Hull, a pole vault expert and member of a USATF team examining pole vault safety, recommends a multi-tiered training approach for coaches that includes a web-based course, in-person education and a mentoring program.
Too many coaches learn pole vault from unreliable sources, he said. Hull pointed to training programs in USA Skiing and USA Volleyball as potential models.
The USATF team plans to host a conference call to explore coach education training courses and educational partnerships involving the NFHS and NCAA. A free web-based training module is the likely outcome.
Improving safety can be as simple as a can of paint. Johnson said a relatively easy change would be to mark the runway, allowing vaulters to chart their steps and make adjustments to their strides, which ultimately affects how they come off the pole.
Another solution would involve creating a checklist to ensure the facility provides a safe jumping environment. This would be an effective way to promote consistent facility and safety standards across venues.
The group spent significant time discussing the use of helmets, too. While a few studies have suggested that helmets reduce the likelihood of fatality, the experts agreed they do not cause a performance concern and may prevent catastrophic injuries.
Pole vault helmets must meet a national ASTM product standard and are designed to prevent serious catastrophic head injuries from impacts below two meters, which would help in bounce-outs similar to the situation that killed Grinnell’s Yin. Grinnell requires its pole vaulters to wear helmets.
“It’s clear that the helmet is going to help in terms of that impact,” Freeman said.
He said after minimal experience with the helmets, the athletes forget they are even wearing them. “I just feel a lot more comfortable with them out there,” said Freeman, a former pole vaulter. “I have enough experience in this sport to know that it can happen to anybody.”
Penn State requires their pole vaulting athletes wear a helmet for three weeks. The period allows athletes to make informed choices about vaulting with or without the helmet, said Penn State coach Beth Alford-Sullivan.
Although Alford-Sullivan allows her athletes to decide whether to wear a helmet, she favors mandatory helmet use. Any Penn State pole vaulter deciding not to wear a helmet must sign a waiver acknowledging they understand the risks involved and are willing at accept them.
In fact, all Big Ten pole vaulters are required to document in writing that they have reviewed with their institution’s coaches the pros and cons of wearing a helmet.
“There’s only one reason you wear a helmet and that’s to prevent a skull fracture,” said Hull, citing the leading cause of death in pole vault.