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Kentridge pole vaulters fly to new heights
From the moment a pole vaulter plants his pole, he has a mere matter of seconds to pull himself upside down, corkscrew his body away from the pole, and push off to launch himself over the bar.
It's demanding enough for college students and Olympians, but some talented high schoolers such as Kentridge High School's Jake Philpott and Brad Foster also pick up the poles each year to compete in one of the most unique track and field events.
Philpott, a junior, and Foster, a senior, are leading pole vaulters for the Chargers. Foster has a 12 feet, 6 inches personal record, and Philpott set school records in his freshman (11-9) and sophomore (13-3) years. He has cleared 13-6 so far this year, sixth best in 4A state this season. Both placed in the top 16 in the 2013 state championship meet.
"Jake's always been incredibly good at pole vault," says Foster. "I started and I was barely making opening height freshman year. He just caught on to it super fast. I remember we were always jealous as sophomores because he was always vaulting higher than us."
Foster performed as a jumper for track programs since fifth grade, but got into pole vault because many of his friends also were trying the event. Four years later and he's the last one remaining as a vaulter.
Philpott has been vaulting for only three years, but has serious competitive chops. He first got into vaulting when coach Al Waltner, who pole vaulted at the University of Washington in the late 1970s, encouraged new team members to consider it.
Philpott gave it a try and found he had a natural talent for the event, setting a freshman school record.
"I had no idea what to expect from pole vaulting my freshman year," Philpott says. "Waltner told me what the record was and I didn't expect myself to actually do it, but then I ended up doing it and it was incredibly cool."
Pole vaulting is a challenging and highly coordinated sport for a high school student, and it carries a series of mental and physical challenges different from most other track and field events. Foster says that his biggest challenge this season is ironing out his form.
The pole must be planted perfectly. The vaulter must wait until just the precise split second to swing himself up, push off the pole and clear the bar. It's a combination of precise timing, raw athleticism and confidence.
"You gotta be confident, because if you're not confident the pole will spit you right back onto the runway," says Foster.
While Foster says his biggest challenge so far is working on his technique, he agrees with Philpott that the mental game is far more challenging.
"I think the hardest part is if you're having an off day and your mentality is kind of off and you're not getting to the pit," says Philpott. "If the pole is just not rotating, you're getting put back on the track."
Getting outside of those head games is crucial during competition. Sometimes it requires the athletes to drop down to a smaller pole that will guarantee them the height they need.
"Once you make the first bar, you feel pretty confident and it just carries with you throughout the whole meet," says Philpott.
Foster has made refining his technique the primary goal for this season.
"Right now I kind of muscle it up the pole," he says, "but I need to get more disciplined in the techniques I use."
When many high schoolers start, they use the pole to fling themselves over the bar, but professional technique requires much more discipline. A vaulter must also swing his body up and simultaneously torque it to get as high as possible.
"For me right now it's more learning the form," Foster says.
In addition to pole vaulting, Philpott is a wrestler and running back.
"Track's my favorite sport out of all of them that I do, I just enjoy it," he says.