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2012 Olympics: American Jennifer Suhr soars for gold in pole vault

Jennifer Suhr beats Cuba's Yarisley Silva in sudden death; two-time defending champion Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia gets bronze. Suhr's victory was predicted by her coach and husband, Rick Suhr.

August 07, 2012|By Bill Shaikin, Los Angeles Times

LONDON -- Jennifer Suhr's coach sent her off to the track Monday with a few words of encouragement.

"You're going to win," he said.

Yeah, yeah, coaches say that all the time. But not this one, not when her coach also is her husband, not when the relationship is so charged with intensity that he never would dare pile expectations atop pressure.

Until Monday, that is. Rick Suhr could feel a gold medal coming, so much so that he started crying in anticipation on the flight from the United States. For the first time, Rick Suhr told his wife she would win.

And she did, in nearly three hours of women's pole vault competition that came down to one jump, to sudden death. If Cuba's Yarisley Silva cleared the bar, she would win gold. If not, Jennifer Suhr would.

Silva missed. Jennifer Suhr erupted in tears, covering her face with her hands, then rushing over to the stands. As Rick Suhr wrapped her in an American flag, she buried her head in his shoulder and cried some more.

"I never felt so much pressure and relief and excitement and joy and happiness all at once," Jennifer Suhr said.

She vanquished the two-time defending champion, Russia's Yelena Isinbayeva, who has broken the world record 28 times. Isinbayeva cleared an Olympic-record 16 feet 63/4 inches to win gold in Beijing and 16-11/4 to win gold in Athens; Suhr cleared 15-7 meters to win on a windy and rainy night in London, one that had competitors scurrying for ski caps and blankets between vaults.

Suhr cleared 15-9 in Beijing, under better conditions, good for a silver medal.

"This is definitely a dream come true," she said. "There is one place up from silver and a lot of places down."

Suhr's story makes a mockery of the notion that a world-class athlete must specialize from an early age. She played basketball at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, N.Y., a school that competes in the NAIA and the National Christian College Athletic Assn.

Rick Suhr, a track assistant, spotted her at a pickup basketball game and envisioned her as a pole vaulter. She was 22, with plans to earn a master's degree and become a school psychologist.

Suhr took up the sport in 2004. Ten months later, she was the U.S. indoor champion. By 2008, she won the silver medal, but the lasting memory was captured by a television camera that caught Rick Suhr berating his wife after her performance.

"I took a big hit in '08 when that NBC camera hit me," Rick Suhr said. "I took a beating. … I coach the way I coach, and we jump the way we jump. And it looks like it works pretty good, so we're going to keep doing it just the way we're doing it, because it works just fine."

Happily ever after, indeed. The Suhrs married two years ago, and the training facility is a steel hut in their backyard.

"There is a lot of blood, sweat and tears that happen there," Jennifer Suhr said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's not the best of conditions, but it's home."

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