BY ANDREW GARDA
Montclair High School’s track and field team doesn’t always have a pole vaulter of any gender.
That means there is always at least one event the Mounties will not gain any points for. Many schools lack a pole vaulter, and Montclair excels in many other areas, so it hasn’t hurt their competitive efforts — both the Mounties girls and boys finished the spring season among the best teams in North Jersey if not the state — however, every point counts, and given how few schools can field an athlete for the event, it can be a big boost to a team.
So when junior Elizabeth Fitzgerald came along, it was another arrow in a Mounties quiver that already had strong performers such as Jessie Legister, Stephanie Webb, Oscar Counsell and Ella McAdams, among many others.
Fitzgerald performed exceptionally well this season, winning the event at the SEC County American and Liberty Conference Championships, the Essex County Championships and the NJSIAA North 1 Groups 1 and 4 Sectionals, before placing fourth at NJSIAA Groups 2 and 4 and then fourth in the Meet of Champions.
That fourth-place finish is a bit misleading, as she really tied with all five of the top pole vaulters, jumping to a height of 12 feet. However, the final order was determined by earlier vaults, and her earlier jumps put her in fourth place. Still, that 12-foot mark meant no other female high school athlete surpassed her this season, and it was a record for the MHS program, as well as a personal best.
All of that helped earn her All Group 4 Third Team honors for pole vault this season.
While Fitzgerald was new to the MHS team, she actually began pole vaulting when she lived in Washington, D.C., over the last few years. A former gymnast, Fitzgerald has an advantage over many who start learning how to pole vault, as she knows how to control her body in mid-air.
However, she will tell you there’s a lot more to it when you pick up a pole and run down the lane toward the bar.
In fact, the pole itself can be a big factor in the success of a pole vaulter.
“So basically, as poles get longer, they naturally get stiffer in order to hold more weight,” Fitzgerald explained. “But the same-length poles can give you different weight grades. The higher the weight on the top of the pole, the stiffer [it is]. So, it won’t bend as much.”
Fitzgerald wants a pole that flexes, because that is part of what propels her through the air, but not too much, because it might not snap back straight to send her up toward the bar, or, worse, it could snap.
Once you have your pole, she said there’s a lot of timing as well as speed and strength involved.
“You start running and the first phase, which is the plant, when you’re dropping the pole, ideally you want to jump off the ground before the pole ever hits the box,” she explained. “So, you already have momentum before [the pole] hits the box and it starts stopping you.”
There are a few things that can go wrong in that phase, Fitzgerald said. Pole vaulters can drop the pole too early or too late and miss the box, or carry the pole too high, get tired and slow down, sapping themselves of momentum they need to launch upward, or even go too fast and hit the box too hard.
As with many things, timing is everything, and it is hard to get right.
“The plant itself is one thing that I struggled personally a lot with because it’s a lot of timing,” Fitzgerald said.
Once the pole is planted and she’s jumped into the air, Fitzgerald has to finish propelling herself toward the bar. Much like a gymnast on a high bar or anyone doing a pull-up, Fitzgerald then has to use her arms and core to pull herself the rest of the way up, riding the momentum of the pole as it begins to straighten.
“So you use your lats and pull your body up until my right hand gets to my waist and then you can start pulling with your arms,” she said. “So my right arm [is at] my waist, my left arm is at my knee, and you try and use them both and bring them up to your shoulders.”
Pole vaulters call that “pulling through invert,” and after that they have to get rid of the pole.
“[You throw it] kind of the same way you throw a basketball,” she said. “I throw the pole because one thing you definitely don’t want happening is your pole falling back into the bar. That’s not a fun thing to do.”
If your pole hits the bar and the bar falls, your jump is disqualified.
Fitzgerald said she doesn’t even notice the steep fall on the other side of the bar. As she trained, her height gradually increased, and she stopped noticing the drop.
What she does keep an eye on is that pole.
“I don’t think about the fall very much as I do what the bar is doing while I’m falling,” she said. “Because once you are over that top point, there’s not really much you can do in the jump except push off. So from then on, you’re focusing on the bar, but not so much on technique. It’s like this happened and I’m just watching to see the outcome of what you’ve done.”
School and the season are over, but like many Mounties, Fitzgerald will now continue training as well as go to various competitions over the summer as she looks toward her senior year, potential recruitment and more success along with her Mountie teammates.