I got 99 problems and the pole’s just one

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Think you’ve got it tough this winter? Try being a pole vaulter. We speak to Olympic champion Jenn Suhr about dodging the polar vortex, reverse parking a pole-laden Sedan, and poles on planes.

We spoke to Jenn Suhr during the depths of midwinter, last year. Then, the New York vaulter told us about the freezing quonset huts she’d spent the coldest months training in. Even though the temperature plunged to 14°F (-10°C), Suhr continued to train. By March she set a new indoor world record of 5.02m.

But this winter was far, far harsher. A polar vortex swept through New York, bringing the entire state to a frozen standstill. Even for the steely Suhr, this was too cold.

“The weather here in western New York has been atrocious,” she says. “We’ve fought it for years and we’ve trained in a steel building, heated with propane, and that’s how I learned to jump.

"I’ve trained that way since 2005. But this year we decided to get out of the area, to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.”

Winter’s unrelenting chill is far from the only problem facing a pro vaulter. Just try parking a car:

“There are so many things that pole vaulters deal with that other athletes don’t have to think about,” says Suhr. “Let’s start with the overweight limit on planes, first of all. I was up to $450 on the plane, I was like: ‘I think I have to speak to the manager’ – just to check in poles to bring them to a meet!

“Then once you get there, you can’t really grab a taxi to go to a hotel, you have to arrange how to get your poles from the hotel. There are really so many challenging things, but you learn to adapt.”

Maybe there’s a benefit in there somewhere, as the athletes who compete in one of the sport’s most technical events must juggle practical problems just get there.

"Pole vaulters have become really good at adapting to things – like, see the poles strapped to the car," says Suhr in reference to her Instagram video.  "That’s two sets of poles on a four-door Sedan!"

So having dodged the weather, transported the pole by plane and then by a suitably-sized vehicle, Suhr has the task of carrying that pole down the runway at full speed, launching herself into mid-air and clearing a bar five metres high.

Oh, and she’s got to stay focused during a competition that can last three-and-a-half hours. How does she do it?

"During that time when you’re waiting for your entry height or waiting between bars, you really focus on what you have to do to make the next jump, but during the wait time before the opening bar, I like to watch other events," she says.

"Anything really to keep my mind off it so I don’t get too nervous, too hyped up, too early."

When the competition gets underway, Suhr means business. She followed Olympic gold at London 2012 with silver at the Moscow 2013 World Championships. This year, she feels even stronger.

"My preparation has been better than it has been in the past. I’ve trained healthily and made so many gains physically. 

"I’m in such good shape right now that I’m actually a little out of timing my vault because I am not used to the speed and strength I have. I’m just waiting for that to match, up, which it will in time; so I’m really excited for the indoor season."