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Argument might be right on pole vault

June 27, 2002|by DAN KAUFFMAN

The most exciting sporting events I've covered in my four years as a reporter were when Middletown's Greg McCormick and Brunswick's Steve Ferrell went head to head a handful of times in the pole vault during the 2000 prep indoor track season.

There's a beauty, an awe and an unmistakable aura about pole vaulting. It is the single most breathtaking event in track and field and, in the span of two months and a handful of meets that season, McCormick and Ferrell pushed each other to majestic heights. Rarely did the winner of their battles fail to clear 14 feet. In comparison, the area's best vault this season was 12 feet.

What McCormick, then a junior, did that season - clearing 15 feet in the pole vault at the state indoor championships, and 7 feet, 1/4 inch in the high jump at the Monocacy Valley Athletic League championships en route to state indoor titles in both events - was unthinkable.

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The buzz at the time was that McCormick, now competing at Georgia Tech, could become America's next great decathlete. People were mentioning McCormick and the Olympics in the same breath. It was heady stuff, and far too early to place those kinds of expectations on him, but with McCormick, you believed it was possible.

That all changed in one freak accident that spring in an early meet of the outdoor season, when McCormick, as technically gifted a vaulter I've seen, encountered problems during a vault and missed the pit.

McCormick walked away from the accident and later checked into a hospital for X-rays. Doctors found a fracture of the C-5 vertebrae in his neck. As bad as that sounds, and as bad as it was, it could have been much, much worse.

McCormick had neck surgery and miraculously recovered to compete in that season's regional and state meets, even winning the long jump state title in one of those surreal moments sports provides now and again.

McCormick won more state titles as a senior, but he never approached his best marks from that magical 2000 indoor season. One botched vault took away some of his magic, perhaps for good.

As beautiful an event as the pole vault is, it is also the most dangerous. The only possible exception is the javelin, which many states have eliminated in high school due to safety and insurance reasons.

Already this season, according to Sports Illustrated, three prep or college track athletes have died as a result of injuries sustained while pole vaulting. According to an Associated Press story released several days ago, at least one prep or college athlete has died performing the pole vault in each of the last dozen years.

The topic of pole vault safety came up repeatedly during this year's outdoor track season, with two general trains of thought: Improving the safety of the event by enlarging the pit area and/or requiring all athletes to wear helmets, or eliminating the event for insurance reasons, much like the javelin.

My argument throughout the season was that all athletes should be assured of proper instruction and training in the event, and that coaches teaching the event should have to be certified, if they are not already. But McCormick knew what he was doing, and if he can be seriously injured, anyone can.

Helmets and larger pits only go so far in protecting the athletes. Pole vaulting will always carry a risk, and that risk can not be completely eliminated.

I loved watching the battles between McCormick and Ferrell and, more recently, between North Hagerstown teammates Mark Noll and David Miller.

But as much as I love the pole vault, it's time to seriously consider eliminating the event if the risk isn't worth it. Because if other safety measures can't assure that no athlete will be seriously injured, or worse, we need to do something that can.

Dan Kauffman is a staff writer for The Herald-Mail. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be reached at kauffman@herald-mail.com or 301-733-5131 ext. 2334.

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