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Tuesday, April 9
Coaches need to get serious about pole vault safety

By Jeff Hollobaugh
Special to

Pole vaulting is one of the most graceful, beautiful events in the sports world. Unfortunately, it is also quickly racking up a reputation as one of the most dangerous. Three deaths already this season, and it's barely April. Pole vault safety is becoming a major concern for everyone who loves the sport.

Kevin Dare
The death of Penn State pole vaulter Kevin Dare, only days after Jesus Quesada died, began to draw attention to the dangers of the sport.

It's about time.

Tragedy very rarely has a good side, but I can only pray that the three young men who died vaulting this spring will leave a legacy of greater safety to all present and future vaulters.

The first death didn't even cause a ripple in the national news. Jesus Queseda, 16, of Clewiston High in Florida, died during a practice session in February. A few days later, Penn State vaulter Kevin Dare, age 19, fell headlong into the box while competing at the Big 10 Indoor Championships. The coaches canceled the meet after his death. Then, a few weeks ago, Samoa Fili, a 17-year-old vaulter for Wichita Southeast High School, also died in competition.

Now sports editors are considering pole vaulting accidents important news items. The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research has come out with a report saying that pole vaulting, with only 25,000 participants nationwide, is more dangerous than any other school sport, including football.

So why is there a debate about safety? Before we even get started with the pros and the cons, let me just get it out there: We need to make the event as safe as possible or else it will go away. People who calculate risk for insurance companies read the newspapers, too. And believe me, they're taking a very good look at the pole vault right now.

In an event as complex as the vault, danger comes from several directions. Several years ago, the national high school federation mandated that athletes can no longer use poles that are built for lighter vaulters. That rule change can be deemed successful, as it has reduced the number of broken poles and the injuries those can cause. Was there opposition to it? Sure. Some coaches griped about the increased cost of making sure all their vaulters had appropriate poles. Others whined that it would be harder to teach an athlete how to bend the pole.

Helmets not the only answer
Then there is the controversial helmet. The state of New York is considering legislation to make helmet use mandatory for high school and college vaulters. Wisconsin already requires its high schoolers to do so. In a society that increasingly mandates helmet usage for bicyclists and skateboarders, you have to wonder why we wouldn't do so for vaulters, who fall from much farther heights.

Some argue that helmets would not have saved all of this year's vaulting victims. That's probably true, but the helmet does add a measure of safety that might help avoid another fatality.

Some oppose the mandatory helmet because there isn't yet one on the market that's designed specifically for vaulters. Garbage. They'll be out soon; trust me. Capitalism works. And in the meantime, there are a number of helmets available that have been produced for other sports that will increase safety for vaulters.

Some argue against helmets on the basis of cost. I want to say that they are cheapskate losers who would gamble with the safety of an athlete so that they can save a measly $50. That's what I want to say, but I won't, because I'm trying to avoid hate mail. I will just say that not everyone has the proper disposition to be a coach.

Some argue that helmets are redundant when an athlete is properly coached. They have a point, but they're still wrong. Ever hear of Stacy Dragila, the world-record holder and Olympic champion? I'm thinking her coach, Dave Nielsen, might know a few things about vault coaching. And he's requiring his athletes to wear helmets.

Jan Johnson, a former world-class vaulter himself, and widely regarded as one of the world's leading coaches, has been preaching the merits of helmets for years. He was a leading figure on the USA Track and Field Pole Vault Safety Committee that in 1996 recommended that pole vault helmets be made mandatory by the year 1998.

It's been four years since that recommendation. Anyone else wonder who in USATF's committee bureaucracy swept that proposal into a crack? While helmets are not the only solution, any idiot can see that they must be part of the solution.

Pits are too often the pits
Without a doubt, the biggest factor governing safety for vaulters is the pit, that giant cushion that should be underneath the bar they're all aiming at. Pits have come a long way in recent years, but they are inadequate at far too many facilities.

The American Society for Testing and Measurement has recommended that the landing pad measure at least 21 feet, 5 inches wide by 16 feet, 6 inches long. The national high school federation may be adopting those measurements shortly. One study found that out of 34 pole vault deaths studied, 32 could have been prevented by using a pit at that size.

The sizable cost, however, has caused many institutions to try to slide by with dangerous equipment. A school wanting a safe vaulting set-up may have to spend up to $10,000 for the pit alone. No wonder so many high school facilities, as well as those at some colleges, are not up to snuff.

Numbers are hard to come by. A survey of 610 schools in Michigan got 238 responses from schools that say they sponsor the vault. Only 11 admitted to having pits that did not meet the modest 12x16 current standard, but 55 schools went on record as saying they felt that standard was not adequate. (Only 35 schools said they require their vaulters to wear helmets.)

The answer to the cost situation is a difficult one, but it's pretty obvious. If a school can't afford to provide safe facilities, it should no longer be hosting the vault. If coaches and athletic directors have any remaining doubts on this question, they should call their district's insurance agent for clarification. I suspect the answer will seem pretty obvious from that end of the phone line, as well.

Not only are vaulters in jeopardy, but also the entire event. Coaches and athletic directors can choose to be proactive and make safety improvements because they are the only conscionable course of action, or they can sit back and wait until their legislators and insurance companies force the improvements. Either way, change is coming.

Jeff Hollobaugh, former managing editor of Track and Field News, is a regular contributor to He can be reached by e-mail at

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