O’Brien works to master the art and mechanics of the vault

LANGLEY — There were times this season when South Whidbey High School junior Ramsey O’Brien wasn’t sure he’d made the right decision.

LANGLEY — There were times this season when South Whidbey High School junior Ramsey O’Brien wasn’t sure he’d made the right decision.

Each member of the track team must sign up for at least three events. Normally a sprinter, O’Brien joined the 200-meter dash and relay squads.

But then he signed up for pole vaulting, joining a tiny crew of four — Isaac Bartel, Hisashi Sanda, Ann Hefflinger and Autumn Walker.

“It was something new for me and I thought it looked like a cool sport,” he recalled.

“I found out it’s harder than it looks.”

In fact, after 10 to 15 hours of intense practice per week under Falcon assistant coach Craig Stelling, it wasn’t until the school’s first home track meet on

March 27 that he finally cleared the bar at 8 feet, 6 inches.

“My socks and shoes were soaked from the slush and rain that day,” O’Brien said. “Felt pretty good to make it over, though.”

To get there, he had to learn the sport’s mechanics.

O’Brien said he’s learned to develop his full run with the pole, start the same way each time, stand with his left foot in front of the other, then rock back and power forward with his right foot into a bounding stride.

“I start with the pole high and gradually lower it until it’s at eye level during the last 24 feet before the plant,” he said. “The coach told us the last three strides have got to be very aggressive so I’m hitting the box at full speed.”

Stelling explained that the pole vault is one of the most technically difficult of all sports. A good sprint to the bar — holding a 12-foot long fiberglass pole — requires good running mechanics, strength, rhythm and speed.

“Vaulters have to run six steps, counting left leg only, plant the pole, reverse in the air while pushing the pole away, turn again and land on their back,” Stelling explained.

The various stages required for a successful jump require precise timing and happen so fast that Stelling uses a video camera to film the action before giving a critique.

“Let’s go to the videotape,” he’ll say.

Stelling added that the big difference this year has been his full-time presence, now that Jeff Greene has assumed javelin coaching duties.

“This season has been a major learning experience for me and I hope to see the program continue to grow,” he said.

O’Brien and Bartel plan to attend a special pole vault camp in February before the 2009 season starts to gain an edge.

Meanwhile, O’Brien is in Tacoma for the second day of track state finals, but as an alternate on the boy’s relay team — his goal is to be there next year as well, but as South Whidbey’s top pole vaulter.

And he’s sure he made the right decision, after all.

“I believe 13 feet is a serious challenge but doable. And that’s where I’m headed.”