This story originally aired on June 9, 2012
On Friday evenings, downtown Louisville’s neon strip known as 4th Street Live attracts those looking for a cocktail or hamburger. Clubs and restaurants line the open-air venue, closed to car traffic. But on a recent evening, the most exciting bar sat high in the air. Six men and six women wearing sweats and racing spikes took turns sprinting towards it on a 140-foot long raised runway constructed of wood and rubber.
Kacy Machir works at one of the nightclubs and huddled with two other co-workers outside on this chilly, grey evening. “I worked yesterday during the day when they were setting it all up,” she said. “And they were building this wooden thing. And they built it all like all right here. And I had to go up and ask one of them what they were even doing it for. And they said pole-vaulting and I was like, ‘Really? You’ve got to be lying.’”
Just a few feet away, some of the country’s best pole vaulters were practicing for the first-ever Vault in the Ville. One of them, Chip Heuser, a local with platinum-blonde spiky hair, organized the very public competition.
“It’s unique in the fact that, you know, human beings are throwing themselves, women 15 feet in the air, men 18, 19 feet in the air, under their own power you know, they’re not using anything, no sails none of that,” Heuser said. “It’s all pure athleticism.”
It’s the circus act of track and field, but at a track meet, the inner oval where field events occur isn’t a great showcase venue. Sprinters and hurdlers flash by, capturing much of the attention. With so-called “street vaults,” casual passers by stop and watch. Take Jan Duckworth and her daughter visiting from Tennessee. Both dressed in sundresses and sweaters, they were in town for a wedding.“So just wandered right up and I used to run track in college so this just caught our attention,” Duckworth said. “We just missed the guy go over. So, never seen anything like this in a middle of a city like this.”
Street vaulting isn’t new. It’s quite popular overseas. Jeff Hartwig, a two-time Olympian in Atlanta and Beijing, who broke several American records during his long career, has catapulted himself in a host of odd locations.
“You can set up a runway literally anywhere,” Hartwig said. “In my own career, especially in Europe, I’ve jumped in beaches. I’ve jumped in a bullfighting ring in southern France. I’ve jumped in shopping malls. And these street events become much more attractive because even here today, we have a number of athletes that are very likely to compete for a spot on the Olympic team…this is something where you can actually bring the sport to the people and it makes for great entertainment, as well as an opportunity for the athletes to compete.”
Now a coach and agent living in St. Louis, Hartwig appreciates the marketing aspect of street vaulting. As the competition began, music cranked up. A couple hundred spectators filed into the competition space, even more packed into balconies.
Pole in hand, a compact man with a shaved head sprinted down the runway, past patrons at an Irish pub and a whiskey lounge. The pole hit the metal box, bent and he sprung up only to clip the bar resting at about 16 and a half feet.
“Oh! So close,” the announcer said.
You might think the music, faint cigarette smell and activity would create distractions. Not so, said Darrin Neidermeyer, a lanky 30-year-old from Illinois. He has qualified for this month’s trials in Oregon, but only at the minimum height. He felt the evening’s energy could help him reach his personal best — close to 19 feet — and secure a spot at the trials.
“We like people to be rowdy,” Neidermeyer said. “We like them to be, you know, clapping for us and yelling for us. It gets this atmosphere like a party. You know, when you’re out in the middle of a track that’s the size of a couple football fields. Those spectators are a couple of football fields away from you and when they’re ten feet away from the runway and in your face and clapping, it’s awesome.”
Track and field, even at an elite level, doesn’t typically draw a huge crowd in the U.S. It’s usually parents or friends filling the stands. On this night, many people who never attend meets stuck around, as men and women soar over the bar at 13, 14, 16 and 17 feet.
Pif Hicks and her grandson, Xavier, knew one of the women competing tonight. She babysits for Xavier, but they had never watched her in action. Now they can’t get enough. As both shook their hips to the music, Hicks leaned over and asked Xavier, “You think you’d like to do it?” He shrugged a bit.
“You have such long legs,” Hicks said to Xavier. “And you’re very quick and powerful.”
“I got to push down hard and I can’t do that,” Xavier replied.
“You can’t do that,” Hicks said. “Have you tried?”
Xavier’s one-word answer: “No.”
After two hours of competition, the winning height for men peaked at 17 feet, nine inches. For females, it was 14 – 7. Many had actually aimed to clear higher, but athletes have a few more chances to qualify for the Olympic trials.
Heuser, who placed second, walked away happy. His main goal was to win fans, fans who will now view track and field as more than starting guns and finish lines. Maybe they’ll tune in to what’s going on in the middle of the oval.
“That’s why we want to do things like this, so that people see this is really cool,” Heuser said. “I’d rather see this than watch a person run around a track making left turns all day.”
Full circle logic from a night of street vaulting.