Pole vaulters need to be properly coached, an area coach said.
By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
When you ask Joe Hammon what he thinks about requiring athletes to wear helmets while pole vaulting, he just shakes his head and frowns.
"As much as I hate the things, yeah, it would probably help," the Fitch High pole vault coach said. "If someone smacks their head on the ground from that far up, [a helmet] is going to help."
But saying that a helmet would prevent the recent outbreak of pole vaulting deaths across the country is sort of like saying fewer people would drown in swimming pools if they would wear life jackets.
It doesn't address the real problem.
"In my opinion, there's a lot of kids that just haven't had the right coaching," Hammon, a 1974 Fitch High graduate who still vaults, said. "There are coaches that are just putting a pole in a kid's hands and having them jump that day.
"A lot of the coaches don't really know what they're doing."
Three U.S. athletes -- a college sophomore and two high school students -- have died in pole vaulting accidents in the past two months after hitting their heads on hard surfaces. In the past two decades, on average, one U.S. vaulter has died each year.
This is the first year that the Ohio High School Athletic Association has allowed girls to compete in pole vault.
"It's very depressing, especially in the field of women's sports," Boardman junior Allison Brager, a pole vaulter, said. "It just got approved and then you see that stuff on the news all the time. But I think it's been blown a little out of proportion."
Brager attended a vaulting clinic in Westerville last June. She travels to Columbus twice a month to work on basic drills and also works with Hammon. She has a background in gymnastics and track and spent a lot of time doing drills before she even attempted a vault.
In short, she was ready. Many aren't.
"A lot of girls start way too soon," Brager, who does not wear a helmet, said. "The first time they pick up a pole is right at the meet and that's frightening to watch. Safety is definitely the biggest factor."
There are no helmets designed specifically for pole vaulting -- most use either skateboarding or bike helmets -- and athletes can choose whether or not to wear one.
"The thing is, most of the time you don't land head first," Hammon said. "You need to learn how to land and how to be in control when you're vaulting."
15 fatal accidents
The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, based at the University of North Carolina, says 15 fatal pole vaulting accidents happened at U.S. high schools from 1983 to 2000. Deaths in college are much rarer, in part because skill, equipment and training are better.
In its report detailing severe injuries in high school sports ranging from football to cheerleading, the center estimated there were 25,000 high school pole vaulters and concluded: "The catastrophic injury rate for high school pole vaulters would be higher than any of the sports included in the research."
Pole vaulting pits are supposed to be no smaller than 16 1/2 feet wide and extend 12 to 13 feet behind the metal box in which vaulters plant their poles. Some want them even bigger, at least 19 feet, 8 inches wide, and 16 feet, 5 inches deep.
But the best way to avoid injury is to know what you're doing.
"This isn't something you can just pick up and do," Hammon said. "If you don't get proper coaching, you run a higher risk of injury.
"With proper coaching, it's just as safe as running down a track."
XThe Associated Press contributed to this story.