Pole vaulters leap 18 feet above River Festival

Professional pole vaulter Jack Whitt clears the bar at 18 feet, 7 inches to win the event at Saturday’s River Festival.
Professional pole vaulter Jack Whitt clears the bar at 18 feet, 7 inches to win the event at Saturday’s River Festival. The Wichita Eagle

A collection of the best pole vaulters in the country came together in Wichita on Saturday to compete in a road vault in front of the Century II’s Expo Hall.

The credential to get into the field was either a Big 12 championship or All-American status, which all seven vaulters provided with three having claim to an NCAA championship.

It was an ideal field with ideal conditions – temperatures soared, but a steady breeze created a nice tailwind – and made for an exciting competition that saw Jack Whitt, current professional vaulter and former national champion at Oral Roberts, take the individual honors by clearing 18 feet, 7 inches.

Even with Whitt setting an outdoor personal best, the competitors said Saturday was less about who won and more about the exposure vaulting on the last day of the River Festival.

“Road vaults are so cool because the crowd gets up close and personal and you have the music going,” Whitt said. “I’ve never jumped next to a carnival before, so I have to say that was pretty cool.”

The event was organized by the Shocker Track Club, although convincing the vaulters was the easiest part of the arrangement. Whitt, Jeff Coover, and Jordan Scott, who were the top three vaulters and all national champions, are all close friends and did most of the recruiting themselves.

Chris Ellis, the vice president of the Shocker Track Club, didn’t want to the fact that the event had two vaulters go over 18 feet – Coover cleared 18-1 – lost in the shuffle.

“It’s very rare to get this many great vaulters in one place without it being some sort of national meet,” Ellis said. “It’s very rare to get this level of competition, especially in the Midwest.”

While the vaulters enjoyed putting on a good show, they also hoped that it caught the eye of people walking past to the River Festival.

Pole vault has always felt separate than its counterparts in track and field and the event has a cult following of its own.

“It’s just a unique sport, man,” said Scott, a Kansas graduate and former national champion. “I didn’t even know what pole vaulting was before I started. You have to be a little crazy to be a vaulter, but the great thing is that anyone can be a fan.”

Almost everyone in the field was surprised by how good the conditions turned out to be. Most were on the tallest poles they have used in quite some time and Whitt admitted himself that he probably didn’t bring a big-enough pole to capitalize fully on Saturday’s conditions.

“It was just the combination of a really fast runway and the tailwind and the crowd was crazy,” Whitt said. “I was on one of my biggest poles and I really had to milk everything to make it work. I just didn’t bring enough sticks with me, honestly.”

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