Sixteen year old pole vaulter, Tyler Craig, of Pickens County is soon to compete at Wichita, Kansas in the USA Track and Field National Junior Olympic Championship. The competition runs Tuesday, July 26, through Sunday, July 31. Craig vaults that Sunday.
Craig's participation at this national meet among athletes drawn from across the country amounts to an amazing accomplishment, considering Craig only began pole vaulting at the start of this year. A football athlete, he was recruited for the track team at the end of autumn, he said.
"One of the coaches was talking to me and kind of talked me into it," Craig remembers. "I was recruited for hurdles, but I wanted to try pole vaulting," he said.
Turns out Craig was a natural.
"In the state track meet last spring, he had the third best jump [across] all classifications," said Raymond Langley, Craig's coach at Pickens High. "That was with two month's experience," Langley said. "In his second month vaulting he achieved that. Pretty amazing. I've never seen anybody go that high that quick."
Craig said he set some goals at the start of the season. His first year at pole vaulting he hoped to qualify to vault at the regional track meet. He wanted to compete at the state meet his second year and to beat the school record for the pole vault by graduation.
He managed to accomplish all three goals his first season. Craig competed at region and placed first. He competed at state and placed second. And by just his third track meet, he had beaten the school record in the pole vault. At region, he vaulted 14 feet, six inches, the new school record. The previous Pickens High record was 12 feet, he said.
Craig has since vaulted 15 feet in practice, a feat he hopes to soon repeat in competition so it counts.
Each time he competes, Craig gets three attempts to get over the bar at a set height. At regional competition, he made 10 vaults with an additional 10 in practice that day.
A pole vault comes together as one smooth flowing routine, combining multiple skills and maneuvers into one achievement. The event demands athletic strength combined with gymnastic coordination. A vault begins on the ground with the vaulter in a fast sprint, the ground end of the pole held high and lowering as the vaulter approaches the box where he is to plant the pole.
He puts pole to ground a little bit short of the box back, allowing the pole to slide forward to the back as the vaulter pushes the opposite pole end as high as he can and springs one-footed off the ground, applying his forward running momentum to flex the pole into a forward arch.
The vaulter follows his one-footed spring by kicking legs up over his head until he is actually upside down on the pole. Feet skyward, he is facing back up the runway where he started. The unflexing of the bent pole powers the vaulter upward and assists him as he pushes himself still farther skyward, extending his body beyond the top of the straightened pole.
As he manages that herculean push, the vaulter must also turn his body so that feet-first he can belly over the bar, jack-knifing his body around the bar as he passes over without touching.
Of course, it's not as easy as it sounds.
"You have an advantage as a pole vaulter if you're tall, have good speed, and you're strong," Langley said. Tyler Craig owns all three advantages, his coach said. "But the huge thing, the big thing, is the daredevil mentality, and he has that.
"You can't do it if you're afraid. You just can't. You're trying to come down the runway as hard as you can with a stick in your hand, put the stick in a box, bend the stick and get upside down on the pole. And you want to make sure you get in the pit, 'cause landing on the ground is not comfortable."
Asked how he ever trains a novice to achieve such stunts on a stick, Langley said they begin with simple upright vaults––something like springing across a stream with a pole assist. From there they add the upside down business and eventually learn to catapult like a human cannonball.
Craig said he started out just riding a 12-foot pole into the cushioned landing pit. Since then he has vaulted to 14 and a half feet using a pole 14 and a half feet long, rated for 170 pounds. Craig weighs about 160 and uses a pole rated for a heavier man.
"That means the pole is stronger. When it bends, the recoil will carry him higher," Langley explained. "He's getting his whole body over the top of the pole."
With the box eight inches into the ground, a 14-6 pole won't quite reach to a bar set at 14-6. So Craig must muscle himself still higher to clear it, pushing off the top of the straightened vaulting pole.
He has already competed at meets with college athletes and done well––remarkable, considering Craig's form on the ground is not all it could be, Langley says.
"When he gets off the ground, he's about as good as it gets," Langley said. "He can turn and make adjustments in the air." It is Craig's run, plant and take-off that need work, his coach said. "He's not getting off the ground with maximum efficiency."
Craig is now at a threshold, Langley said, having risen rapidly on the power of his pluck and natural ability. Now athletic discipline and training must come into play.
"I'm working with a coach [Robbie Robertson] at Kennesaw at a pole vaulting club," Craig said. Robertson coached American vaulters for the 1996 Olympics at Atlanta.
And Craig has a new carbon fiber pole rated for 170 pounds. Those carbon fibers pack more snappy recoil as the pole unbends. He will work to achieve more consistency with his vaults before he starts with the new pole, Tyler said. "I've gotta get my plant right before I get on that," he said.
"So when you learn how to pole vault you can get on the carbon fiber, right?" Tyler's dad, Sheriff Donnie Craig razzed during Tyler's Progress interview.
"Yeah," Tyler returned, half smiling.
Tyler and dad soon travel to Wichita, where Tyler will compete in the Junior Olympics national meet on the campus of Wichita Sate University.
In the meantime, he keeps to a practice routine: Sunday afternoons at the Georgia Pole Vaulting Club along with Pickens High girls vaulter Megan Dixon. It's two to three hours of vaulting practice followed by another two hours of gymnastics.
"We go down there on Sundays and work, and me and Megan go to the gymnastics place and do stuff just for pole vaulting," Craig explained. "We do a bunch of work out things that build your upper body up. Work on a bar," he said.
He and Dixon also work at coaching each other, Craig said. "We help out and try to tell each other what is wrong and try to help each other all we can," he said.
Because the pole vault is such a technically challenging event, athletes who compete in it at the high school level (and even their coaches) encourage and try to assist competing athletes. The sport seems to pit man against the bar more than athlete against athlete.
"It's pretty neat," Donnie Craig said.
"I've got friends all over Georgia now from pole vaulting," Tyler Craig said.
Asked about his vaulting goals at present, Craig said, "I want to beat the state record before I graduate." The high school state record is 16 feet, 8 inches, he said.
"My next goal is 16-9," Craig smiled. He would also like to earn a vaulting scholarship to college, he said.
"That's like a really long-term goal––more like a dream," Craig said.
But it’s easy to see the heart of a champion in this guy.
I've got two big scars on my back," Craig said, "where I came off sideways and hit the standards. I just got up and did it again. Heights and stuff like that don't bother me."
His advice to other aspiring vaulters?
"Just don't think about it. Just do it," Craig said. "If you think too much, it'll throw you off. Don't think. Get over the bar."