Daredevils: It takes a ‘risk taker’ to soar over a bar as high as a house just for sport

The skinny on pole vaulters is that they are a little off.

A group that gets their kicks catapulting upside-down over a metal bar as high as a house.

One must be “a little crazy, in a good way,” said St. Charles North pole vault coach Hailee Stay.

She would know. As a North Stars vaulter she qualified to go downstate as a junior, but with a pair of stress fractures in her back she passed. Her background in jujitsu and rock climbing could have contributed. She healed and vaulted in Charleston as a senior.

“I fit into that weird group, too,” said York’s 30-year vault coach Keith Petranek, 69, who would still be competing on the masters circuit had not a hip replacement slowed his speed down the runway, a key to vaulting along with a strong vertical jump.

“I think a real common denominator is the daredevil aspect of it, the kids that are kind of risk takers. They want to try something new, those guys who probably swing off their roof on a rope and jump off the high dive in the swimming pool, those kind of kids,” he said.

  York’s Gavin Schaer clears the bar while competing in pole vault during the Red Grange Invitational boys track meet at Wheaton Warrenville South High School on April 19. Joe Lewnard/

Fortunately, radical impulses are tamed by coaches who emphasize safety above all else.

“We always tell the parents: ‘These boys are risk takers. They’re jumping heights more than the chandelier in their house,’” said Maribeth Juraska, who started as a videographer but now helps coach Lake Park vaulters with her husband, Doug Juraska. His state-record seven pole vault state champions include two-time Olympic decathlete Zach Ziemek.

“We want their spinal cords to be attached to their body when they’re done,” Maribeth Juraska tells them. “They need to listen in order to stay safe, and we hope you agree.”

Pole vaulters do get injured and have even died performing the event. The main causes are falling back into the “vault box” where the vaulter jams the pole before takeoff, or missing the back or sides of the landing pad, or “pit.”

Following National Federation of State High School Associations regulations that dramatically reduced catastrophic injury, the Illinois High School Association mandates padding length of 20 feet, 2 inches from the front of the vault box to the end of the pit, and a 19-foot, 8-inch pit width.

  Glenbard West’s Ollie Wintermute clears the bar while competing in pole vault during the Red Grange boys track meet at Wheaton Warrenville South High School on Friday, April 19, 2024 in Wheaton. Joe Lewnard/

The IHSA also requires the standards that move the crossbar forward and back be set between 18 and 31½ inches beyond the straight vertical plane of the vault box. Doug Juraska said he won’t let Lake Park vaulters set standards nearer than 24 inches.

“Doug likes the standards as far away from the runway and as close to the pit as possible so no one has to pop up like jelly out of a doughnut to get over the bar,” Maribeth Juraska said.

The vault box itself must be fitted with a thick, padded collar. The bases of the two standards also are padded.

“The catastrophic injuries have been significantly reduced since the 1980s, and it’s been a number of years since I’ve heard of a catastrophic injury,” said Glenbrook South pole vault coach Jim Lonergan, who has been coaching vault so long he began at Maine North High School, which closed in 1981.

Lonergan also operates GetVertical Pole Vault, which leases space at Maine East from November through February. It’s among a small but increasingly popular group of pole vault clubs or businesses, including RISE Pole Vault in Joliet, owned by the famed Winder family of vaulters, who collectively won five state titles.

“The days of kids missing pits, I can’t ever say it’s completely over but it just doesn’t happen all that frequently, which is great. All it takes is one mishap and it could ruin the event,” Lonergan said.

Prospect sophomore Brooke Neri clears a bar at the 2024 Nagel-Saylor Indoor Invitational at North Central College in March. Courtesy of Danielle Gerdes

The closest Prospect sophomore Brooke Neri has come to an injury was when a bar fell and gave her a knot on the head. Helmets are not the rule in Illinois.

Neri fits the mold. Earning nicknames “Cheetah” and “Monkey” as a little girl due to climbing trees and being “a little bit wild,” she said, her mother, Nicole, suggested she try pole vault after Brooke enrolled in a track camp in middle school.

High school is most people’s introduction to pole vault, but middle schools may offer it, particularly if they hold meets or practices at a high school with the equipment. Even Gill Athletics’ basic “landing system” of padding runs more than $16,000.

Amateur Athletic Association pole vault starts at 13 years old. The Illinois Elementary School Association offers sectional and state competitions for seventh- and eighth-grade pole vaulters.

Like most vaulters, it took Neri some time first to bend the pole, then get inverted, using the speed of the approach and the whip of the pole to kick her legs past the shoulders up and over the bar before twisting to land on her back.

“It takes courage, but I think a little bit more than that, it takes (abdominal muscle) strength,” she said.

At 105 pounds, Neri starts on an 11-foot pole tested at 110 pounds and moves up to a 12-foot, 127-pound pole. She’s cleared 10 feet, 9¼ inches.

Rules forbid using a pole tested lighter than a vaulter’s weight, to avoid breaking the pole. If it’s too stiff, though, the attempt can stall and there’s risk of a fall.

“The scary thing you have to do as a pole vaulter is have that real bad jump and get back up and do the exact same thing over again,” Neri said.

The combination of upper body and core strength and acrobatic ability gives gymnasts an advantage in pole vault.

  Lake Park’s Vinny Lanzito competes in pole vault during the Red Grange Invitational at Wheaton Warrenville South High School on April 19. Joe Lewnard/

Grayslake Central senior Sean Mullen, a two-time Class 3A qualifier and sixth in 2023, was 12th in the nation as a Level 8 gymnast when he was 11.

His middle school track coach knew that and advised he try pole vault in seventh grade. Mullen competed against Paul Migas, now a senior at Lakes, the two-time defending 2A champion whose 17-4¾ mark this season ranks fifth in the nation, according to Track & Field News.

“It was more of a challenge learning the different techniques and the different skills of the event, it’s a lot different than gymnastics. I wasn’t really scared, I was more excited to try it because it looked like a lot of fun,” Mullen said.

Also a hurdler who looks to compete in multiple events in college, Mullen has vaulted 15-3 indoors and 15-2¼ outdoors this season.

He said he’s learned how to fall, or if he gets in trouble on the way up, to hold on to the pole and let it take him back down.

Landing in the vault box, Mullen said, is “not too serious. Usually you just land on your butt.”

It still sounds a little crazy.

“It’s not for the meek or the mild,” Petranek said, “that’s for sure.”

  St. Charles East’s Evan Lagana celebrates during his descent after clearing the pole vault bar during the Red Grange Invitational at Wheaton Warrenville South High School on April 19. Joe Lewnard/
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