Pole Vaulter Aims For New Heights And Olympic Gold The world's top-ranked female pole vaulter lives and trains near Rochester, N.Y. After taking home the silver medal in the Beijing Olympics, 30-year-old Jenn Suhr, with support from her husband and coach Rick Ruhr, is gunning for gold in London. But first, she must qualify at the U.S. trials in June.
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Pole Vaulter Aims For New Heights And Olympic Gold

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Pole Vaulter Aims For New Heights And Olympic Gold

Pole Vaulter Aims For New Heights And Olympic Gold

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Today, in our countdown to the Summer Olympics, we go to western New York State, the home of the top-ranked female pole-vaulter in the world. Jenn Suhr is hoping to qualify for her second Olympic games. Until then, the 30-year-old silver medalist is working with her coach-turned-husband to jump ever higher. Zack Seward of member station WXXI reports.

RICK SUHR: That's right around probably 15. It's pretty close, yeah.

ZACK SEWARD, BYLINE: Jenn and Rick Suhr are looking over video in the living room of their suburban Rochester home. On the flat-screen TV, Jenn sprints down the runway, plants a 15-foot pole and flips her way over a high bar. Rick says it's a near daily ritual in the metal airplane hangar out behind the house.

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

SEWARD: Rick's height concerns are not that farfetched. Jenn is the only American woman to clear 16 feet both indoors and out. That's a half-foot shy of the world record, but Jenn says she's cleared 16-feet-five-inches practicing outside.

JENN SUHR: But here everything's tight so you feel safe and you can try a lot of different technique in here.

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

SUHR: It's pretty intimidating at first, just the idea of it.

SEWARD: Back then, Jenn Suhr was still Jenn Stuczynski, a six-foot-tall college basketball star. Seeing her potential, pole vaulting coach Rick Suhr was able to convince her to give it a try.

SUHR: You know, it was actually Rick that got me started in pole vaulting. I was afraid of it. I thought those people are crazy. You know, I was like, who would ever want to do that?

SEWARD: The two have been working together ever since - mastering the fundamentals and racking up records and titles along the way. But they've also shared in hard times, stirring up controversy after a second place finish in Beijing. An open mike caught Rick appearing to chastise Jenn. They say the incident was blown out of proportion.

SUHR: The average person doesn't understand the stress and the pressure of the Olympics.

SEWARD: Since the '08 games, much has changed. The two married in 2010; Jenn posted a banner year in 2011; and she discovered the source of crippling muscle cramps - an allergy to gluten.

SUHR: Knowing that I had it was a lot better just because I was able to now eat the right things, and eat what I should be eating, and not have the side effects, you know, and the fatigue.

SEWARD: With a little luck, a healthy Suhr hopes to outdo her silver medal. But for now she's focused on the U.S. Olympic qualifiers set for Oregon in June. To make it to London, Suhr still has to place in the top three.

SUHR: All the sudden, every four years track is big. And everyone knows, like, it's a make it or break it situation. But the meet before or the meet after, you could beat the same people but everyone knows the Olympics.

SEWARD: Still, she says it's an honor to wear USA across her chest. An Olympic flag hangs over the Suhr's front door. Assuming they make it to London this summer, it'll be their first Olympics as a husband and wife team.

SUHR: In the beginning, it was hard for us to get used to because as you see our building is right in the back of the property. And so we had to learn fast how to separate the two - how to separate training and competition and the relationship.

SUHR: So far so good?

SUHR: So far so good.

SEWARD: Back under the tin roof, the Suhrs are going through the fundamentals.

SUHR: We break it apart in the drills and we hope that that comes back as habit.

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

SUHR: When you're jumping, it's, you know, it's just an aggressiveness, but I think the exhilaration and the fun comes after you make the bar and you're falling. That's the best part. A few seconds to celebrate and relax.

SEWARD: For NPR News, I'm Zack Seward in Rochester, New York.


SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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