Duke junior Megan Clark, the favorite to win the pole vault at this weekend’s ACC Outdoor Track and Field Championships, originally picked her sport for a simple enough reason: Popsicles.
“My parents used to make us do sports when we moved so we would have more friends,” Clark said (her father’s military career took her to 10 different schools during her kindergarten through 12th-grade years). “So, my mom signed me up for track, and I tried every event there was, except for throwing. And the pole vault coach had Popsicles, so I decided that was what I was doing.”
Regardless of the reasoning, it proved to be a solid choice. Clark placed second at the NCAA Indoor Championships in March, tying an ACC record with a clearance of 14 feet, 9 inches (4.50 meters), and she cleared that mark again at the Duke Invitational outdoor meet in April. That vault is good for the third-highest clearance nationally this outdoor season.
“I would have predicted for her to be able to be jumping as high as she is jumping right now, but not as soon,” said Shawn Wilbourn, the Duke track coach who works with the pole vaulters. “Last year she really showed some signs of being elite.”
Consistency has been Clark’s biggest improvement this year, both she and Wilbourn agreed. Given that Clark went to three different high schools, consistency was hard to come by early in her development.
After beginning to pole vault in Northern Virginia, Clark moved to upstate New York. There she worked with a club team and cleared 13 feet for the first time, landing on Wilbourn’s radar. Her performance at his pole vaulting camp the summer before her senior year solidified Duke’s interest.
Clark spent her senior year in Georgia, with her mother serving as her coach, relying on information she had picked up from Clark’s previous stops and poles the family bought themselves. Once she arrived at Duke, Wilbourn began working to turn her untapped potential into consistent performances.
Clark improved her personal record by a foot from her freshman to sophomore year (14-7.25, or 4.45 m) setting both the Duke indoor and outdoor pole vault records in the process. But she wasn’t quite able to repeat that type of performance on a regular basis. Last summer, Clark entered as the top-seeded pole vaulter in the NCAA East region, but a thunderstorm-induced weather delay and a broken pole threw her off, and she did not advance to the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
“It’s absolutely terrifying,” Clark said of breaking a pole. “You’re jumping as usual, and then all of a sudden you hear a really loud noise, and your hands vibrate, because the pole breaks into three pieces and just releases all of that shock. Then you fall and have to vault again.”
The first thing Clark did was switch pole brands – the break at the NCAA regional meet was the fourth one she had incurred with that particular brand – and then she and Wilbourn worked diligently on improving her takeoff. Clark has a tendency to look at the pit and think she is farther away from it than she actually is, causing her to jump late, so Wilbourn’s solution was to place a yoga mat on the runway. That gives her a visual cue of where she should jump, and she can also feel when she has waited too long and steps on the mat.
“It happens a lot faster than people think,” Clark said of pole vaulting. “When you vault, you basically blink, and you’re falling back down.
As for what vaulting actually feels like, Clark described it like this: “Running up, dropping the pole and jumping up as high as you can and reaching as high as you can. And as soon as you feel a stretch, because the pole starts to bend, you swing. And that’s basically it.”
With jumping nearly 15 feet in the air comes an adrenaline rush and a little bit of fear. Clark feeds off of that.
“The same thing that is appealing to bungee jumping or sky diving, there is this daredevil component to it, and people are attracted to that. And once they try it, people get hooked on it,” Wilbourn said. “So, it is never boring and it keeps you coming back.”
Clark said the best feeling in the world comes when she falls over a bar, knowing that she has cleared it. She’s had that feeling often this year, starting with the indoor season in January. She won gold at the ACC indoor championships in February and entered the NCAA championships seeded fifth. A career day and ACC-record tying jump of 14-9 (4.50 m) earned her a silver medal and first-team all-American status. She was also named the ACC women’s field performer of the year
Clark matched that height outdoors a month later (the wind can be either advantageous or a hindrance, but Clark prefers jumping indoors and not messing with it). Nationally, that is the third-best college vault of the season, behind Stephen F. Austin’s Demi Payne, who set a new NCAA record with a clearance of 15-5.5 (4.71 m) and Arkansas’s Sandi Morris, with a clearance of 15-1.75 (4.62 m).
Clark’s goal for the outdoor season is a vault of 15-1 (4.60 m), which was close to the previous NCAA record of 4.61. She has cleared that height in practice, so she has worked with Duke sports psychologist Greg Dale on replicating the calm practice setting at meets.
“She is very capable of jumping higher than that,” Wilbourn said. “It’s a very technical sport. Being on in the zone and being able to put everything together doesn’t happen as often as we would like, but it’s getting more consistent.”
While winning gold at ACCs this Friday in Tallahassee, Fla., and qualifying for the NCAA outdoor championships in June are her most immediate goals, Clark does have realistic dreams of competing for Team USA in the 2016 Olympics. She knows the potential is there – it’s just a matter of producing the results.
“What I’ve learned in the last couple of years is that I still have a lot to fix,” Clark said. “And there is a lot more potential there. But I’m really happy with how I’ve been jumping.”