Father Kapaun

April 11, 2010

Pole-vaulter returns to field after nearly dying

Chase Kear pole-vaulted at the Hutchinson Night Relays last weekend. As sports comebacks go, this comeback got up to only 10 feet, 6 inches.

Chase Kear pole-vaulted at the Hutchinson Night Relays last weekend. As sports comebacks go, this comeback got up to only 10 feet, 6 inches.

Not much for any pole-vaulter; not nearly close to the 14 feet 7 inches he vaulted as an Andale high school student, or the 15 feet 7 inches he vaulted in practice a couple of years ago for the Hutchinson Community College track and field team. Not a big deal.

But given the circumstances, his 10 feet 6, as far as he was concerned, was pretty much a miracle. "Unbelievable."

"I was higher than the top of the world."

His story has inspired a lot of people, including people at the Vatican, who are considering whether his very survival was the work of a soul in heaven, a long-dead Kansas priest proposed for sainthood. The night before he vaulted, Chase and his family appeared on the ABC News program "20-20," talking about the dead priest, and miracles, and how lucky Chase is to be alive.

So yeah, Chase Kear is a big deal. When he launched his pudgy and slightly-out-of-shape body over that pole-vaulting bar, he even wore a shirt that said, "I'm kind of a big deal."

In the nearby bleachers, as hundreds of people cheered, his family watched, his mother Paula cringed every time he stabbed the pole into the pit and hurled himself half-upside down into the air. Every time he came down, he landed hard on the mat on his back or his shoulders, and his once-shattered skull slammed into the cushion.

Unlike the other vaulters, he wore a helmet, because his head is made of pottery.

"And titanium," he said. "They tell me my head cost half a million dollars."

He grinned.

In late 2008, he was a vaulter for the Hutchinson Community College Track and Field Team; he tried a practice vault, missed the mat, and caved in his skull.

His survival surprised every doctor who helped save his life, including his neurosurgeon, who sawed off much of his skull, scooped out dead brain matter and said he'd probably not survive. The neurosurgeon told the Vatican later that the only explanation for why he survived is that it was a miracle.

All the while he was getting his head sawed, Paula and the other devoutly Catholic Kears were praying to Father Emil Kapaun, a Kansas hero and martyr of the Korean War, who died in 1951 after saving hundreds of American lives in prisoner of war camps in North Korea. The Vatican is studying his proposed sainthood.

The Kears are convinced, as they told the Vatican, that Father Kapaun pleaded with God to spare the life of their son. Chase believes this too.

But on Saturday, in front of hundreds of spectators, he talked little of this.

He raced to the bar, jammed his pole into the pit and launched himself into the air, not very high.

He missed the first vault.

Then he missed again, and again.

Then he made it.

He jabbed a fist toward heaven.

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