What I Learned From a Hole in the Sky

The scene: a mill town in the upper Midwest. A sunny spring day with a warm breeze hinting at the promise of impending summer. A high school track abuzz with activity. Junior high schoolers running and jumping and tossing heavy objects.

At one end of the track infield a group of boys were using tape measures mark their steps for the pole vault event. There I was, a smallish lad, going about my pre-competition routine completely unaware of the magnitude of the events that were about to unfold.

There are a couple of facts that will provide the proper context for the rest of the story.

1) I wasn't a very good pole vaulter. In 7th grade my highest vault 7'6'' (world class high jumpers were doing that). In 8th grade, my best was 8'6''. Here, at the final meet of 9th grade, my best was - you guessed it - 9'6''. That wasn't awful, but our team's top entrant (let's call him Jim), had a best of 10'6'', and had been clearing 11'' in practice.

2) Improvements in vaulting occurred in small increments; usually 3'', but sometimes 6''.

3) I loved to pole vault. Winning would have been nice, but I did it for the sheer fun of flying. Despite plenty of injuries and the drudgery of setup and teardown of equipment each day at practice, I never once gave thought to quitting.

The other important thing about pole vaulting is that while it requires a unique combination of speed, strength, and agility (which I didn't then possess), the greatest challenge is mental. When you stand at the end of the runway, you know all the things that can go wrong (these were pre-helmet days, but that's another story). And when you look at the bar you have to clear, it's usually floating up in the air, with only the blue sky or an occasional cloud behind it. Perspective-wise, it's WAY up there! And if you let those thoughts seep into your mind, you're sunk (he says from experience).

But not on this day. There was a large berm behind the other end of the track, and on that berm stood a massive old elm tree. When we started vaulting at 8' (you always start low just to get on the board), the bar was in the middle of the tree trunk. It looked like I could high jump it! I cleared 8' on the first try. I cleared 8'6'' on the first try. I cleared 9' on the first try, too. So did Jim, for whom it was the first height of the day.

Next up was 9'6'', my best height ever. The bar was now at the first row of branches. A little too high for me to high jump, but definitely vaultable. And I cleared it on the first try. So did Jim, only he cleared it by a foot.

The bar was moved up to 10'. I missed the first time, but easily cleared the bar on my second attempt! My family and friends were both excited and completely befuddled (I know this because they later told me so; they were kind enough to express only excited on the track). Jim cleared the height on his first attempt. But nobody else did. He was feeling pretty good, because his primary competition was gone and all he had left was one scrub who was now in completely uncharted territory.

10'6'' was next. I was up first. Good thing I'd forgotten I was a scrub and focused solely on that bar in the lower limbs of that elm tree. Piece of cake! And I cleared it on my first try. Nobody was more suprised than my mother - except Jim, who proceeded to miss on his first attempt, which put me in the lead (!), but he cleared the bar on his second attempt.

Now the bar was set at 10'9''. Since this was such a higher height than I was used to, I had to adjust my hand placement on the pole and lengthen my run a bit. This isn't an exact science, and a major contributor to why incremental improvements are generally small. On my first attempt at 10'9'' my steps were wildly off and all I could do was run through the pit. Jim narrowly missed clearing the bar. On my second attempt I hit the bar on the way up, but so did Jim.

I tried not to think about it, but if we both missed our next jumps, I would be city champion based on misses at 10'6''!

Before my last attempt, I focused on that tree, and the conviction that the bar was still in my range. I flew down the runway, planted the pole, rocked back, pulled hard, and flung myself over the bar! I laughed on my way back down to the mat!

Jim didn't look so good, but he dug deep and executed a beautiful jump that easily cleared the bar.

Eleven feet, a height neither of us had tried in competition, was next. I nearly crashed into one of the standards holding up the bar on my first attempt. That must have emboldened Jim, because he scraped the bar on the way up on his first attempt, but it stayed on the pegs, and he had the lead.

But I wasn't done. On my second attempt, I knocked the bar off with my elbow, but I got the necessary height. Before my third and final attempt, I visualized myself easily going over the bar with perfect form several time before opening my eyes and starting my run. When it works, that visualization stuff is amazing, because the vault was just as I pictured it. I had now jumped a foot and a half higher than I ever had before! By this time all the other events were complete, so there was a pretty good crowd, and their cheers felt thunderous!

11'3'' was next. The bar was still in the branches of the tree, but when I stood my pole up next to the bar to judge hand placement, there was no denying I was well out of my comfort zone. My first attempt was another aborted run-through. Jim barely missed. Second attempt for me was another run-through; I was starting also get tired. Jim hit the bar on the way up and looked to be losing steam, too.

On my final attempt, I got a great approach and got up to the height of the bar, but not over it, and missed. Jim, knowing he'd won the meet, ran though the pit on his final attempt.

I was a fiercely competitive kid, and was torn between disappointment at not winning and amazement at doing what everyone at that track, including me, would not have believed possible. Heck, I think about it now and it's still hard to believe. If someone just told me the story, I'd be incredulous. I guess truth is stranger than fiction - at least that's been my experience over the past few decades.

So what did I learn from this pivotal event in my life?
  1. Change happens discontinuously. That is: we all like to have goals and plan for incremental, manageable change. Life, however, doesn't work that way! Circumstances and opportunities seem to come unexpectedly, at a time and place of their own choosing. There's an old saying: Luck is where preparation meets opportunity. We can plan the preparation, but can only be on the lookout for opportunity.
  2. How we frame our perception of the world makes all the difference in life. The elm tree created a hole in the sky that changed my perspective dramatically (if temporarily), and opened up the pathway to doing the improbable.
  3. Doing what you love can power you past unbelievable obstacles. My parents humored me and allowed me to stay with pole vaulting even though it was abundantly clear that I was unsuited for it (based on almost three years of performance). But if I'd done the reasonable thing and found another event or sport, I would not have learned that on any given day, the unbelievable can happen - to each one of us.

On that pleasant May evening, I didn't have a full appreciation of those important life lessons. And if I don't focus, it's easy to lose the benefit of that experience in the machinations of everyday life. Thanks, Bob, for challenging me to WILF (yes, it's now a verb) something important, because now it will be easier to remember.

This post is part of Robert Hruzek's ongoing group writing project: What I Learned From. Click the link and check out all the entries. They're fantastic! And you can still participate, too. Click here for more details.

[Photo courtesy of Latvian on Flickr]

posted by Mike at 6:51 AM


Blogger Robert Hruzek said...

Wow, Mike! You had me flying up there with you on every try! This is a sport that has always seemed, I don't know, magical to me. The thrill of actually transcribing a parabola through the air with you body - well, it seems like extreme fun to me!

Good lessons learned, too, especially #1.

Thanks for, er, jumping in! Bwa-ha-ha-ha! Er, sorry.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Mike said...


When it goes right, it IS magical. Particularly that moment at the top, when the bar - and everything else - is below you, you get a uniquely exhilarating feeling!


P.S. I'm looking forward to the rest of the entries!

10:14 AM  

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