Soaring to New Heights

Pole vaulting is not for the faint of heart.
It’s an event that requires strength, speed, dedication, and courage. It requires an understanding of the finer points of technique training and the willingness to trust that training. It requires an ability to make adjustments, sometimes very quickly. And it requires a clear head that enables the athlete to analyze but not overthink.
That said, the casual observer still might see little other than the vaulter running with a pole, planting, hurling himself (or herself) over a bar, and landing with a thud on a gigantic pillow.
Vaulting is much more, of course.
“Mostly, in layman’s terms, it’s biomechanics,” said John Vellenoweth, who’s coached Collegiate’s vaulters the past three years. “Essentially, you transfer energy through your body appropriately. You need good running mechanics and proper emphasis on moving your muscles to get the energy into the pole and transfer it with maximum efficiency.
“It takes a good bit of speed and strength to jump high. Strength, especially, compensates for the misses in the technique where your body ends up absorbing more of the energy rather than putting the energy into the pole. Pole vaulting is a very mental sport. You have to really cater to the mental aspect: building confidence…reasonable, rational confidence.”
A Wheeling, WV, native, Vellenoweth is a highly accomplished practitioner and teacher of the event.
As an 8th grader at The Linsly School, he cleared 10-0. The next year, he broke his father Thomas’s school record when he cleared 12-10. His prep best, 15-8, remains the school record.
He went to Penn State hoping to compete in the decathlon but soon directed his focus to the vault. When he graduated in 2009, he held two school records (17-0.75 indoors, 17-5.5 outdoors). Both still stand.
After graduation, Vellenoweth coached at the Division I level, trained in Jonesboro, AR, under the esteemed Earl Bell, and improved his personal best to 18-6 before injuries waylaid his Olympic dreams and ended his competitive career.
His journey ultimately brought him to Richmond when his wife Charlotte, a physician, joined Associates in Pediatrics. He serves as director of VElite Athletics, which offers vault and sprint coaching, consulting, and track and field equipment sales.
“Coach V has totally advanced our pole vault program,” said Beth Kondorossy, Collegiate’s track and field program leader and head girls coach. “He invests a lot of time, and his expertise, experience, and excitement got the kids to buy in. He does a lot of drills and video analysis. He meets kids where they are (in terms of ability and experience). He really works well with them.”
When Vellenoweth arrived, J.P. Mintz was a sophomore with a personal record of 10 feet. Two years later, it’s 14-0. Hayden Luckert, a junior, has improved from 11 feet to 13 over the past year. Trey Thompson, also a junior, cleared 10-6 last year. His current PR is 13 feet.
“Coach V is a really supportive, inspiring coach,” said J.P., the 2019 Prep League outdoor champion. “His effectiveness has a lot to do with the explanations he gives and his patience.”
Under Vellenoweth’s guidance, Ashley D’Ambrosia, a junior, has improved from 7 feet to 10-6. Charlotte Smith and Catherine Horner, both sophomores, have improved from 5-6 to 9-6. Lauren Lucy, whose introduction to the event came last winter when she was a freshman, started at 6-6 and now holds Collegiate’s indoor (11-0) and outdoor (10-6.75) standards.
“When I started pole vaulting, Coach V was the sweetest human ever,” said Lauren, who last June placed 10th in the freshman division of the New Balance Outdoor Nationals. “He’s so encouraging. He’s really good at giving feedback on what you should change. The little things he says make the biggest impact. It’s amazing how much he knows and how much he’s led each one of us to succeed.”
The praise goes both ways.
“Everybody who was jumping was really interested in the vault,” Vellenoweth said. “They’re hard-working kids. They’re bright. They ask questions. They listen well.”
How does he explain the improvement?
“I think it was just having some quick PR’s and the kids getting excited about their progress,” he said. “It was the old saying, ‘Success breeds success.’ Once a couple of jumpers started doing well, everybody else saw what’s possible with continuing to work hard.”
While the Cougars compete indoors in the winter, they train outside, regardless of weather which is not always conducive to explosion-type events. Not a problem.
“We mostly just do a shorter approach,” Vellenoweth explained. “We work on efficiency and technique a lot with the shorter approach in colder temperatures because you don’t want to get up to full speed when it’s freezing.
“The benefits of the indoor facility is that it’s a controlled environment: you, the pole, the box, and the pit. The downside is that very rarely in the spring do we have a controlled environment. We have wind all over the place. It’s cold in the morning, hot in mid-day, starting to get cold in the evening. And rain.
“Jumping outside helps with preparation. It’s adjusting to the environment and mental toughness. For a vaulter, mental toughness goes a long way.”
What’s more fun: competing at a high level or coaching? I asked Vellenoweth.
He didn’t hesitate.
“It’s definitely more fun to coach,” he said. “I’m very surprised that I say that. In high school and at the club level, the whole point is to develop. You want to find the athlete that no one’s really looking at or the athlete who really hasn’t found their place, or the athlete who just thinks pole vault is cool.
“I had a lot of fun vaulting, but you don’t quite get the sense of reward or fulfillment compared to helping other people, especially kids.”
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