The top three boys pole vaulters in America – Texans Reese Watson and Shawn Barber and Ohio’s Jacob Blankenship – will compete side by side for the first time and launch an assault on 18 feet at the New Balance Nationals Indoor championships on Saturday afternoon at the Armory.
All three of them have topped 17-6 already this year and progressing in the direction of Tommy Skipper’s 2003 outdoor record of 18-3. (Andrew Irwin set the national indoor record in 2011, 17-9.25).
But there are subtle in how Watson, Barber and Blankenship get that high off the ground.
There three are important factors to consider: Size of the pole (length and also its weight rating, which correlates to how much the pole will bend. Most vaulters use a pole with weight rating of 20 pounds higher than their actual weight). The placement of the hold (if an athlete is using a 16-foot pole, they may “hold” at 15-6, for instance). And third, is the number of inches over the hold that the athlete can get their bodies over (usually 24 inches, or higher).
“Everyone is trying to do the same thing, but everyone does it different,” Blankenship said. “We all have our own technique.”
Barber, of Kingwood Park, Texas, moved slightly ahead of the others when he jumped 17-8 at an outdoor meet on March 2. Barber has a best of 17-6.50 indoors, from Jan. 7.
Barber typically uses a 16-foot or 16-foot, 1-inch pole weighted between 175 and 185 pounds. He has jumped on a five-meter (16-5) pole but hasn’t incorporated it into meet competition yet. He holds near the end of his 16 (or 16-1) pole.
When Barber lowers the end of his pole into the box at the end of the runway, it’s eight inches deep. So if he’s holding at about 16 feet, then he loses those eight inches in pole length. To get over a bar at 17-8, he has to rise 28 inches over his hold.
Watson, of Spring, Texas, is the current US#1 with a clearance of 17-7 on Feb. 4.
Watson holds at 16 feet on a 16-foot pole weighted for 190 pounds. In order to make 17-7, he’d have to get 27 inches over his hold.
Most vaulters make a progression, moving onto “bigger” poles (length and weight rating) as a competition moves to higher bars.
Watson has a 16-5 pole that he has experimented with but he is still working on getting proficient with it.
“If I’m out there having a really good day, I could use it,” he said. “You can’t be scared to try big poles.”
Even though Watson and Barber are from Texas their paths cross only occasionally. Barber competes for Class 4A school, Watson in Class 5A.
“It’s definitely good to have people up there with you to push you,” Watson said. “We’re all going after that record. Shawn is one inch above me and I know Blankenship is trying to beat that and go an inch higher.”
Blankenship, of Lincoln (Gahanna, Ohio), has a different approach. He grips at about 15-2 feet on a 16-foot pole weighted at 210 pounds. His best jump so far was 17-6.50 on Feb. 25, meaning he was more than 30 inches over his grip.
So why take a lower grip on a stiffer pole?
“It’d doesn’t make sense,” he said. “I’ve been working more on my technique and it’s just what works for me.”
Blankenship also uses a fiberglass pole which has a slightly heavier “carry weight” than the carbon fiber poles used by Watson and Barber.
On Saturday, all of those slight difference will be at play when the three of them go into competition.
Blankenship said he’s been eagerly waiting a chance to meet Watson and Barber and get know them a little bit this weekend.
“I’ve been wanting to jump against these guys for a long time,” he said.
The feeling is mutual for all three.
“I’m excited for it. It should be a good competition,” Barber said.
Rick Baggett, a popular club coach in Oregon, has been paying some attention to this year’s Big Three vaulters.
“I have seen them jump on Youtube,” he said. “They’re strong, fast and their technique is good. You’ve got to be big and strong and fast.”
Baggett should know. He coached Skipper when he was at Sandy High School.
“When Tommy jumped 18-3 he was holding at 16-3 and got 35 inches over his hand hold,” Baggett said.
Over the next three to four months, Watson, Barber and Blankenship will try to get that high too – by whatever means works best.
“I honestly think one of us three will break that (record) this year,” Blankenship said. “Shawn and Reese have been putting up PRs left and right. One of us three will get up to that point.”
Blankenship hopes it’s him.
He’d like to reach the Olympic qualifying standard – (5.60 meters) 18-4.50.
“I’m hoping to get up there,” he said. “That would be awesome.”