On track and field’s historically distance-heavy squad, junior Abigail Sharkey and sophomore Robert O’Brien are the team’s only pole vaulters. The two of them sat down with Spectator’s Ally McDonough to discuss their craft and how they got interested in it.
Sharkey: When I was a little girl in gymnastics, I always thought, “I’m gonna do this forever, I’m gonna go to the Olympics, this is my thing.” But gymnastics is not the type of sport that you can do very long, it’s just so hard on your body. So when I switched to pole vault, it was like, “Ok, no, this is the thing that I’m gonna try to do for as long as I can.”
O’Brien, on the other hand, was introduced to the sport his freshman year of high school, and six years later, on Jan. 20, 2017, he broke Columbia’s indoor school record when he cleared 5.00 meters. And the new height that the Los Angeles, California, native set didn’t just happen by accident.
O’Brien: When you pole vault, you don’t just start wherever, run as fast as you can, and take off. You’re counting every single step you take, you know exactly how far away from your takeoff you should be, you know where you’re taking off, you know everything. So, you have to know your run, you have to have a consistent run. There's nothing random about it.
Sharkey: You need to be catching things like, “Where is my step landing? Am I in the right spot? Do I want to raise my hand up on the pole? Do I want to scoot back a little bit?” So there's a lot of kind of like the mental game going on, which makes it kind of, I think more interesting.
O’Brien: I know in my head that I'm going to take 16 steps total before I take off. So I start running, I'm counting in my head, building up quicker and quicker and so eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one...
Sharkey: And then as you’re running, you’re slowly dropping the pole down.
O’Brien: The tip of the pole goes into this box which goes down eight inches. Then you jump as high and powerfully as you can, you try to hold your takeoff position, you don’t just... The pole doesn’t just carry you up, you have to put energy into it.
Sharkey: While the pole is bent, you flip yourself upside down.
O’Brien: Then you do a 180 in the air and form a C over the bar.
Sharkey: It goes by very fast, I think, when you’re watching. It’s really slow when you’re doing it sometimes.
But no matter how precise they aim to make a vault, no vaulter can walk away with a flawless performance.
Sharkey: I think that’s kind of really the thing about pole vault, you never really do a perfect jump. You’re always trying to get it better.
O’Brien: It gets so frustrating because you can get 95% of the vault perfect by your own standards, but you can mess up the last 5% and it’s not like you get 95% of the height, you don’t make it. The way the pole vault rules work, you start at one height, you get three attempts at that height, if you make it, you continue to the next height. If you don’t make it in those three attempts, you’re out.
Sharkey: No matter what the meet is going to end with you missing three times in a row. That’s something you have to kind of learn to deal with, is to not get disappointed because every meet you’re going to fail at least three times, probably more. So you really have to kind of learn how to deal with that.
Sharkey: I think that I’ve also made improvements with the mental aspect of the jump.... Robert’s fearless, but it is a pretty scary event sometimes, because there is like a lot that can go wrong, and I sometimes find myself thinking about all the things that could go wrong…. You need to trust that the pole is going to bend and not just slam you back into the runway, you need to trust that the pole is not going to break, you need to trust your coach if he tells you “I need you to hold six inches higher” or “I need you to change your step.” You need to trust that those adjustments are going to work.
Even with the benefits from individual tweaks between vaults, the improvements from consistent training don’t always manifest right away.
Sharkey: It’s definitely not easy, because like I said, it can be a very mentally challenging sport, especially once you start to get to the higher heights. Progression can be really slow, or like non-existent. Maybe you’re working on your run, or you’re working on something that is going to improve you overall, but you’re not going to see those improvements for a year or two.
O’Brien: In high school, my freshman year I wanted to clear nine and a half feet. But then my senior year I wanted to get 15 feet so badly. And then once I got that it was all about getting 16 feet. Now, it’s all about getting 17 feet.
From the Lion’s Mouth is a content series that provides Columbia’s coaches and student-athletes with a platform from which to share their experiences and connect with the Columbia community.