Pole vaulter gets fans’ appreciation

by Jim Schortemeyer

DES MOINES, Iowa — The loudest cheer at this weekend’s Drake Relays wasn’t for a race or a star athlete.
Instead, the biggest ovation came for … the pole vault?
Drake Stadium rocked Saturday as Kellie Suttle cleared more than 13 feet, 9 inches in the women’s pole vault. Her mark is the fifth best in the world for this year, and earned her the victory in the vault by more than six inches.
As Suttle was lining up for her attempts, fans clapped in unison before building to a roar as she went up.
“It’s amazing,” Suttle said. “You get a little fatigued, and then you hear the clapping and you get psyched.”
The morning excitement carried over into the afternoon, when jumpers were going on both the pole vault and the high jump. Although no vaulters matched Suttle’s feat, the crowd still got behind all of the athletes.
“This crowd is one of the best crowds in the nation,” Minnesota pole vaulter Tye Harvey said. “They’re so into the pole vault. It’s these meets that really make track and field worthwhile.”
Hey, hey, what can they do?
To say there were a lot of competitors this weekend would be an understatement. More than 8,000 athletes competed, with ages ranging from elementary school kids to thirtysomething professional athletes.
With that many athletes, Minnesota was bound to be in for some stiff competition.
Although Olympic athletes were occasionally involved in the Gophers’ events, most didn’t seem to mind. For instance, Minnesota’s Minna Haronoja is used to finishing in the top three, but saw her results drop to seventh place in the 1500-meter run.
“To try and get better, I have to run with the best people and try to keep up with them,” Haronoja said.
Star light, star bright
It wasn’t a typical year at the relays as far as star athletes go. In the past, athletes like Michael Johnson and Carl Lewis have taken part in the action.
This year’s stars were a little lower-profile, but they didn’t disappoint.
Two-time Olympian Suzi Hamilton made an appearance in the 800-meters and knocked a few seconds off of the track record. She then graciously took a victory lap, stopping to sign autographs along the way.
Even Minnesota coaches got into the running act over the weekend. Men’s cross country coach (and Olympian) Steve Plasencia raced in the men’s masters mile, and placed second to a former Nebraska miler.
The sun will come out tomorrow
The one thing that jumped out about the women’s team Minnesota fielded at Drake was its average age.
Because of the loss of several team members last fall, Minnesota is quite young. As a result, this has been a difficult year for the Gophers.
“We’re to the point where it’s just been one thing after another,” head coach Gary Wilson said.
Wilson has been left with a youthful team; most of them probably don’t even remember ex-Gophers football coach Jim Wacker, who left the program after the 1996 season.
Although Minnesota didn’t send any juniors or seniors to Drake, the team’s results remained respectable.
“This is going to be an outstanding team in another year,” he said.