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Soaring toward the Summit

Vaulters flock to Reno for competition, training and to celebrate their event
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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When Kaj Niegmann, plants his pole and propels himself over the crossbar, surges of adrenaline flow through his body. They are a reminder to him of why he works so hard to join ranks of pole vaulting greats who have graduated from Placer High School. Some of those greats include Stacy Dragila, who won the first-ever Olympic gold medal in women’s pole vaulting in 2000. Others, like Connor Landry, who won the Big West Conference title in the pole vault in 2008 and 2009 and Tawny Lambuth, who now attends the United States Air force Academy, have gone on to pole vault in college. Placer Pole vault coach Kent Rhodes said this is one reason track and field may be so popular at Placer, attracting 125 students this year. “There is a deep history of pole vaulting at Placer,” Rhodes said. “Our track is named after Stacy (Dragila) and she is a good supporter of ours and comes by and visits when she is in town.” Aside from inspiring talks by Olympic athletes, Rhodes looks for other ways to keep his team motivated. Each year they attend the UCS Spirit Pole Vault Summit held in Reno, Nev. “The summit is probably the premiere event in the world for pole vaulting and it just happens to be in our backyard,” Rhodes said. This year, Jan. 28-29, Rhodes and seven Placer students will load their poles into 17-foot. plastic drainage tubes, strap them onto his car and make the journey to Reno. There they will converge with thousands of coaches and students from all over the world. Olympic athletes will host training sessions and even go head-to-head against one another in competition. Rhodes said the summit is important because it gives his athletes the chance to build connections and see that pole vaulting is not just a minor event. He hopes his girls team will set their sights even higher when they see women from Placer who have gone on to compete at the college level. This is crucial since pole vaulting is still a relatively new sport for women. Until the 1990’s women were told they weren’t strong enough to reach heights similar to men, but a brave handful of women began to step up to challenge convention and prove that “chicks with sticks” could jump too. Dragila was one who forged the way for women in the sport. She started her career in track and field at Placer as a hurdler and tried pole vaulting for the first time in college. She went on to set world records for women, culminating in a gold medal win the first year it became an Olympic sport. Dragila’s father, Bill Mikaelson, who still lives in Auburn, said she has always been a tenacious competitor. “I mean who would have ever thought?” Mikaelson said. “But she was always getting into competitions and wanting to keep up with her brother who was a champion bull rider.” Mikaelson still goes to local pole vault events to see up-and-coming talent. As for what makes a good pole vaulter, Rhodes said, upper-body strength and speed, not gender, are the deciding factors. He has also noticed that the best sprinters often make the best pole-vaulters. The Placer team started conditioning this month, focusing primarily on speed development and strength. Some dedicated pole-vaulters though, like Niegmann, have been training all year. Pole vaulting captivated him so strongly that he quit soccer early in high school to focus on it exclusively. Niegmann’s four years as a pole vaulter have been a learning process. “The biggest thing I’ve obtained from it is patience,” Niegmann said, “Grades and school have always come easily to me so it has been something to challenge me.” His personal best on the track is 12 feet 7 inches and in the classroom he maintains a 4.7 GPA, earning a place among the top five in his class. These accomplishments have taken some sacrifice from Niegmann, especially sleep. Some days he would stay up until 2 a.m. studying after track practice and wake back up at 5a.m. to finish homework. “Balancing school and vaulting has been the biggest challenge for me in high school,” Niegmann said. “But it’s all about putting in the time.” While many other students may have senioritis, he is finishing out the school year in Honors Physics and AP English, while remaining dedicated to setting a new personal best in pole vaulting. It is that kind of dedication on the Placer pole vaulting team from coaches and athletes that has defined them over the years. Rhodes even built a track and pit in his backyard for his students to practice on year-round. He said the team is looking very competitive to win meets, but each vaulter is more focused on surpassing personal records. The rich legacy that so many former Placer pole vaulters have left behind gives today’s team the confidence that they will do just that. They have been passed the torch and want to build on that legacy by crossing bars set even higher. Fans and supporters can watch the Hillmen at their first home track meet, scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on March 9 at Le Febvre Stadium. Reach Sara Seyydin at saras@goldcountrymedia.com.