Pole Vaulter Aims For New Heights And Olympic Gold

fromWXXI

Pole vaulter and Olympic hopeful Jenn Suhr trains in an airplane hangar behind her home outside of Rochester, N.Y. i i

Pole vaulter and Olympic hopeful Jenn Suhr trains in an airplane hangar behind her home outside of Rochester, N.Y. Zack Seward/For NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Zack Seward/For NPR
Pole vaulter and Olympic hopeful Jenn Suhr trains in an airplane hangar behind her home outside of Rochester, N.Y.

Pole vaulter and Olympic hopeful Jenn Suhr trains in an airplane hangar behind her home outside of Rochester, N.Y.

Zack Seward/For NPR

The world's top-ranked female pole vaulter spends a great deal of time in an airplane hangar outside Rochester, N.Y.

But you won't find Jenn Suhr on an airfield. The 30-year-old is behind the house she shares with her husband and coach, Rick Suhr, in a hangar custom-adapted for training.

And with a silver medal from the 2008 Beijing Olympics under her belt, Jenn is hoping to qualify for her second Olympic Games.

Until then, she's working with Rick to jump ever higher.

On a recent spring day, the couple are poring over video in the living room of their suburban Rochester home. On the flat-screen TV, Jenn sprints down a runway, plants a 15-foot pole on the ground and flips her way over a high bar.

Rick says it's a near-daily ritual in the training hangar — a space that's almost too small for Jenn these days.

"As you can see, in this building it's getting pretty tight," Rick says. "In fact, she's come so close to hitting that ceiling, I don't know how she hasn't hit it yet."

Those concerns about height are not so far-fetched. The one-time Olympic medalist is the only American woman to clear 16 feet — both indoors and out.

That's 6 inches shy of the women's world record, but Jenn says she's cleared 16 feet 5 inches practicing outside.

In the hangar, though, Jenn says "everything's tight, so you feel safe ... You can try a lot of different technique[s] in here."

Jenn is relatively new to the sport, in some ways an accidental champion who first picked up a pole at age 22.

"It's pretty intimidating at first, just the idea of it," she says.

Back then, she was still Jenn Stuczynski, a 6-foot-tall college basketball star. But seeing Jenn's potential, pole-vaulting coach Rick Suhr was able to convince her to give it a try.

"It was actually Rick that got me started in pole vaulting. I was afraid of it. I thought those people were crazy, Jenn recalls. "Like, 'Who would ever want to do that?' "

The pair have been working together ever since, mastering the fundamentals — and racking up records and titles along the way.

But the couple has also shared some hard times. They stirred up controversy after Jenn's second-place finish in Beijing, when an open microphone caught Rick appearing to chastise Jenn.

Silver medalist Jenn Suhr is the only American female pole vaulter to clear 16 feet in a jump. i i

Silver medalist Jenn Suhr is the only American female pole vaulter to clear 16 feet in a jump. Zack Seward/For NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Zack Seward/For NPR
Silver medalist Jenn Suhr is the only American female pole vaulter to clear 16 feet in a jump.

Silver medalist Jenn Suhr is the only American female pole vaulter to clear 16 feet in a jump.

Zack Seward/For NPR

They say the incident was blown out of proportion. "The average person doesn't understand the stress and the pressure of the Olympics." Jenn says.

Much has changed for the couple since the 2008 games. They married in 2010, Jenn posted a banner year in 2011, and she also discovered the source of crippling muscle cramps: an allergy to gluten.

Jenn says she is now able to "eat the right things ... and not have the side effects and the fatigue."

With a little luck, a now healthier Jenn hopes to outdo her silver medal in London this summer.

But for now, she's focused on the U.S. Olympic qualifiers, scheduled for June in Oregon. Jenn must place among the top three competitors to make it to the London games.

"All of the sudden, every four years, track is big," Jenn says. "And everyone knows it's a make-it-or-break-it situation ... The meet before or the meet after, you could beat the same people — but everyone knows the Olympics."

Still, she says, it's an honor to wear "USA" across her chest.

If the Suhrs do make it to London this summer, it will be their first Olympics as a husband-and-wife team.

"In the beginning, it was hard for us to get to used to. Because ... our [practice] building is right in the back of the property," Jenn says. "So we had to learn fast how to separate the two — how to separate training and competition, and the relationship."

Back under the hangar's tin roof, the Suhrs are going through the fundamentals. "We break it apart in the drills, and we hope that that comes back as habit," Jenn says.

She says pole vaulting is basically launching into a handstand off a moving pole. And between now and the Olympics, she's fine-tuning that art some 16 feet in the air.

"When you're jumping, it's just an aggressiveness, but I think the exhilaration and the fun comes after you make the bar and you're falling," Jenn says. "That's the best part — a few seconds to celebrate and relax."

Zack Seward reports for member station WXXI and Innovation Trail.

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