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Sky is the limit

Helene Elliott

Jenn Stuczynski, the still progressing U.S. record holder in the women's pole vault, is the favorite at the Olympic trials to make the team for the Beijing Games

July 03, 2008|Helene Elliott

EUGENE, Ore. -- Four years ago Jenn Stuczynski was a long-hitting golfer with plans to join the LPGA Tour.

She had recently begun pole vaulting, just dabbling, not thinking it would lead anywhere. So she had little reason to pay attention while the world's best female jumpers competed at the Athens Olympics.

"I called her and she was on the driving range," said Rick Suhr, her jumping coach. "I said, 'Hey, did you just watch the Olympics?'

"She said, 'No, I'm golfing.'

"I said, 'You've got to give that golf up.' "

Thanks to Suhr's advice, she probably won't have to watch the Beijing Olympics on TV.

She figures to be there as the top challenger to Russia's Yelena Isinbayeva, the 2004 gold medalist and world-record holder.

In a sport that measures gains in centimeters, Stuczynski has progressed miles in a stunningly short time, especially considering she does her indoor training in two pushed-together Quonset huts in Suhr's backyard. She lives on the top floor of his home in Churchville, N.Y., about 90 minutes from her hometown of Fredonia.

She gets cold in the facility. "There are plans to improve it, but we never go through with them," she said. Yet, she won't leave for warmer weather because she'd be too far from her parents, nieces and dog.

"I've learned to separate pole vault from life," she said, as healthy a perspective as you'll ever hear from a world-class athlete.

Stuczynski, 26, has won the U.S. outdoor title twice and indoor title three times. In May she became the first American woman to clear 16 feet, soaring 16-0 3/4 at the Adidas Classic at Carson. She has since had several close calls at breaking Isinbayeva's record of 16-5 1/4 .

All that's stopping her, she said, is "my mind. When you have it at a world record you kind of over-analyze it and think you have to have a magnificent jump and you just fall apart. You try too hard. You have to run smooth and jump instead of trying to force it."

Taking it smooth and steady is her first priority today, when the Olympic trials pole vault qualifying takes place at Hayward Field.

She has beaten every competitor on the start list. "That part comforts you," Suhr said.

But never has she faced such heightened expectations.

Suhr says he thinks she'll do fine. He can't find ways that success has spoiled her, and she seems level-headed and charming, hating that she blushes when she sees her image on Adidas posters.

To her, the high point of her first practice at Hayward Field wasn't the stadium's history or bucolic setting but the chance to pet the bomb-sniffing dogs protecting the site.

"I have expectations of myself and I might put the pressure on myself that I have to win, but I think that's a good motivation. I don't fear it," she said. "It helps you drive."

That's exactly what Suhr wants to hear.

When he saw her play basketball at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, N.Y., he looked beyond the obvious -- her 6-foot frame and great athleticism -- and saw a fierce competitor.

"Her persistence and toughness are what have made her accelerate the way she has," he said.

"A lot of people think it's natural talent, it's this, it's that. Everybody in the field over two days, 24 girls, has some natural athleticism and talent. But Jenn's ability to practice, to be mentally tough, to concentrate and focus and want to win -- her drive is well, well above the average."

That should serve her well today and in Sunday's finale.

"If anything, there's less pressure on us. When she went into this thing, let's be realistic -- it was a shot in the dark," Suhr said. "She wasn't a pole vaulter. She went into it and we gambled because I felt she could get to a high level someday.

"Maybe from the outside there's expectation. But as far as self pressure, I think there's less now because she's made it already. She's the American record holder. If we get out of this gig tomorrow, she was a success. She beat the odds."

Not that she has any intention of quitting.

She's still learning the fine points of jumping and beginning to savor the sensation of flying.

"I see that more with the guys just because they're so much higher up," she said. "They're jumping four feet higher on average. I'm starting to feel that, where I'm starting to jump higher over my handgrip, but the men definitely get the best ride, 19 feet."

She could break the world record here if the winds are favorable, unlike the gusts that buffeted the men last week. Suhr said she has improved more the last three months than in any three-month span since she put down her golf clubs and picked up the poles.

"She's very much still on the climb," he said. "The day may come when she plateaus, but the longer that day doesn't come, the higher we're going, and that's a good thing."

Four years ago she could not have pictured competing at the Olympic trials. A year ago she would have been awe-struck. Today, she will be ready for whatever comes.

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