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The deadliest sport in America

Pole vaulting has the highest death rate of any sport in the country.

By BOB PUTNAM
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 12, 2002


Whenever University of Florida pole vaulter Paul Condron steams down the 35-meter runway like a locomotive, he carries a 16-foot fiberglass pole labeled with this warning:

"Vaulting is a dangerous activity. Severe injury, paralysis and death may occur."

In the past month death has occurred more frequently.

On Feb. 23, Penn State University sophomore Kevin Dare died while competing in the Big 10 indoor championships. He was attempting to clear 15 feet, 7 inches when he tumbled backward onto the metal box, the area used to plant the pole.

His death came five days after a Clewiston High vaulter, 16-year-old sophomore Jesus Quesada, died when he bounced off the padding after a practice vault and struck his head.

Although the two fatalities are the first since 1998, they are not isolated cases. A study published in the January 2001 edition of the American Journal of Sports Medicine reviewed 32 catastrophic pole-vaulting injuries, 16 of which resulted in death. The injuries, reported to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research between 1982 and 1998, showed an average of one death per year in the event. With about 25,000 participants, it ranked as the highest death rate per participant of any sport.

"I wasn't that shocked there were two deaths within a week," said Jan Johnson, chairman of the USA Track and Field pole vaulting safety committee and an author of the AJSM study. "We are going to continue to have catastrophic injuries until we change some things in this sport."

Gone are the days of clearing bars with wooden poles and landing on potato sacks filled with sawdust. Vaulters sprint down runways on $300 fiberglass poles, soar above bars set at roughly the height of a two-story building and tumble down and land on foam-padded mats.

Records are broken and the popularity of the sport has increased, especially with the introduction of females in the past decade. Women competed in the pole vault for the first time at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

But the popularity has come with a price. The sport attracts a fraternity of daredevils and the higher the bar is raised, the higher the risks involved.

"Anyone who does this has to be either brave or just plain crazy," said Condron, a former Clearwater Central Catholic star. "There's a lot of danger and anything can happen. But that's also the excitement. Not everyone can do it."

Condron was always aware of the risks but had not heard of anyone dying in the sport until Dare's accident, which happened the same day Condron was competing at the Southeastern Conference indoor championships. Condron didn't know Dare, but he did write the family and express his sympathy.

"That was something that really surprised me and I felt really bad for he (Dare) and his family," Condron said. "It seemed like it was a freak accident."

Dare's and Quesada's deaths were not flukes. Their fatalities, along with the 16 others recorded since 1982, were the result of a common occurrence -- the head whipping off the pad and striking the surrounding hard surface, or the head landing in the vault box or missing the pad.

"We've done a huge amount of work to educate people on safety since I started competing," said Johnson, a bronze medalist in the 1972 Olympics. "But the work is not done."

Changes have been made to protect vaulters. Poles have been regulated, padding has increased and hard surfaces surrounding the pit have been covered or removed.

Still, fatalities do occur. Iowa is the only state that has dropped the sport at the high school level, doing so in 1986. Alaska doesn't have it.

Johnson and his fellow AJSM authors suggested that the minimum size requirements for pads be increased, especially the distance from the back of the planting box to the back edge of the landing pad. The National Federation of High Schools Associations will propose during its rules meeting in June to increase the depth of the landing area from 16 feet to 20 feet, 5 inches and the width from 16 feet to 19 feet, 8 inches.

But the increase in padding means an increased cost to schools, at a time of tighter budgets. New landing pads cost about $7,000.

"Look around the state and you'll be amazed at some of the pole vault pits," said Jefferson coach Brian Woods, a specialist in the vault. "I'd say about 80 percent are below compliance now. These counties are cutting corners and it's just an accident waiting to happen."

Johnson said the change will be difficult and he will try to help schools alleviate some of the costs by purchasing additions to their current landing pads instead of buying a new one.

"We're not in a perfect world," Johnson said. "We need people wearing helmets, we need to get rid of substandard facilities."

Helmets have not been fully accepted in the pole vaulting community. Kelsey Koty, a pole vaulter at Eastern Washington University, was severely injured in a pole vaulting accident in January 2001 and was in a coma for several months. She is considering making a comeback but will do so without a helmet.

"I would consider it if there was a helmet strictly for pole vaulting," Koty said.

No specific helmet exists. Helmets that are used are made for bicyclists and skateboarders. Johnson said he wouldn't make it mandatory and that a helmet would not have prevented Dare's death.

"No matter how many safety measures we take, accidents are going to happen" Johnson said. "But we need to continue to make things as safe as possible. My goal will always be the same, to have no more serious injuries."

-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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