Jenn Suhr'04 - 2012 Olympic Gold Medalist

BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS GIVE WAY TO GOLDEN GLORY

By Tom Rivers ’96

Editor’s Note: Jenn Suhr set a new world indoor record on March 2, vaulting 16 feet, 5.5 inches at the U.S. indoor athletics championships in Albuquerque, NM. The 5.02-meter vault eclipsed the 5.01-record established by Russian great Yelena Isinbayeva. 

 

page20-2When she first arrived at Roberts Wesleyan College as a high school senior, Jenn Suhr — then a teenage Jenn Stuczynski — felt at home on campus. The basketball star from Fredonia was warmly greeted by the Roberts women’s basketball team, including many of the veteran players. That friendly response won her over.

“I felt comfortable,” she recalled. “I knew I fit in and I would play. The seniors accepted me.”

Suhr was highly recruited by other schools. She liked that Roberts was close enough for her parents and grandparents to come to her games, but also offered a little distance — about a two-hour drive from home.

Four years later, when Suhr graduated, she was the women’s leading scorer with 1,819 points. The 6-footer averaged 24.3 points and 6.7 rebounds a game as a senior. The team was runner-up in the National Christian College Athletic Association tournament. Roberts also won the Chase tournament featuring Rochester-area schools.

Suhr, a Psychology major, was looking to the future. She anticipated a career as a school counselor. She wanted to coach basketball.

‘Good foot speed’

page21-1Rick Suhr lived five miles down the road in Churchville and was developing a reputation as a pole vault coach. Two of his pupils won high school national championships, and he was an assistant for the Roberts track team, serving as the jumps coach.

He was in the Voller Athletic Center in late winter 2004 when he watched a pick-up game. Suhr was playing with five guys and more than holding her own.

On one play, she boxed out a couple of players, leaped high and grabbed a rebound. She landed and quickly outran the men to the other end of the court.

Rick Suhr was impressed.

“I was thinking, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good foot speed,’” he recalled. “She was aggressive as an athlete. That’s what you look for.”

He thought Suhr had the raw talent and intangibles to be a potential pole vaulting force.

After that pickup game, he talked with her about vaulting. Suhr politely listened for 10 minutes, but declined to pursue the sport. She still had a few games left in her senior season.

When basketball ended, Rick Suhr saw her again at the VAC and made his pitch one more time. He told her he had a proven program for the vault. Again, Suhr doubted she would do it. She was already thinking about graduate school, but didn’t rule out the vault this time. She showed up at a practice and watched the vaulters work. Then she agreed to give it a try.

For six weeks, she learned the basics of the sport, which requires athletes to sprint down a runway holding a 15-foot-long pole. Vaulters plant the pole and try to fling themselves over a bar.

Early success

page21-2She proved a fast learner, winning the NAIA indoor title in 2005 with a 13’1.5’’ vault. That year, she put the pole vault community on notice that she had arrived. She won the USA Indoor Championships in Boston, clearing 14’3”.

“She had only been jumping for 10 months and she won the national title,” Rick Suhr said. “That is equivalent to you or me starting golf and winning the Masters or a major in your first year.”

In 2006, she captured her first national outdoor title. She also went over 15 feet, signed with Adidas and landed on the cover of Track & Field News magazine with the title “New U.S. Vault Hope.”

Normally, vaulters are groomed as seventh- and eighth-graders, and gradually make improvements over several years to compete on a national and worldwide stage.

But Suhr vaults better than any other woman in the world. She won gold in the 2012 Olympics in London, with a 15-foot, 7-inch vault in blustery conditions. She won silver at the 2008 Olympics. She holds the American record with a 16’2’’ vault, the second-highest ever in the world.

page21-3Back in 2005, she was trying to grasp the basics of the sport. Suhr said she had to make a mental switch from years of playing on team sports.

“They’re not similar at all,” she said. “The pole vault is very technical. It’s an individual sport where you’re alone with your thoughts.”

Suhr has committed herself to mastering the finer techniques of the sport. She is a gifted athlete who keeps her composure in a packed stadium with millions of viewers on television.

“Jenn is mentally the toughest track and field athlete I know,” Rick Suhr said. “She has the concentration, focus and intestinal fortitude not to be denied. Her biggest factor is telling herself, ‘I’m going to will myself to win.’”

Olympic star

page21-4Suhr broke the American outdoor record in May 2007 with a 15’11” vault. Two weeks later, she broke the record again, clearing 16 feet for the first time. The 16’0” vault was second-highest in history, behind only Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia.

In 2008, Suhr kept raising the bar: a 16’1” vault in May and then 16’2” at the U.S. Olympic trials in July. She won silver at the Olympics in China with a 15’9” vault. Isinbayeva claimed gold with a new world record, 16’7”.

Suhr continued to win national titles in the following years. She also made a major life decision. On January 3, 2010, she married Rick Suhr.

“She’s an even better person than a pole vaulter, and that’s saying something,” her husband said. “She is a genuine, humble person. We’re lifelong companions. We’re life partners. We’re best friends.”

Suhr has battled injuries in recent years, as well as the effects of celiac disease, a gluten intolerance that left her sluggish. She has switched to a gluten-free diet to combat celiac disease.

In summer 2011, with the Olympic trials a month away, Jenn tore her right quadriceps. With her leg heavily bandaged to keep pressure on the quadriceps, she qualified for the London Olympics during the trials. She kept the leg wrapped during the prelims at the Olympics and then took it off for the finals.

She cleared 15’7”on August 6 to win the gold medal in swirling winds. Her battle-tested nerves didn’t fail her. With the gold around her neck, she wept.

It’s been a whirlwind for the Suhrs since then, traveling to events and banquets throughout the country, while continuing to train and “catch up on our life,” Suhr said. Together, they’re working on a book they expect to be released in 2013.

Suhr wants to tell the unlikely story of learning a new sport at a world-class level, the commitment needed to be the best on the planet, and how you overcome challenges.

“I want to inspire people to chase their dreams, even if people tell you, ‘You started too late,’” she said. “I want to show people what it takes, all the blood, sweat and tears.”

Roberts fan

Suhr has been back to Roberts several times since winning gold. She was the parade marshal for homecoming, joined in the dedication ceremony for the new Crothers Clock Tower, and put on a pole vault Gold Medal Tour competition. About 2,000 people watched vaulters on a chilly September night as Suhr cleared 15’3” for the homecoming crowd. She also took her Gold Medal Tour to Fredonia and the Buffalo Bills’ field house.

“These are places that are significant to me,” she said. “I wanted to say thank you. That’s where the supporters are. I wanted to inspire youth and adults. They see that it’s a fun sport to do and watch.”

Suhr, now 30, wants to keep competing. She said she is still learning about the sport and honing her mechanics. She thinks the can raise the bar.

“My goal is to jump as high as I can,” she said. “It’s just fine-tuning things without making any major changes. But I can go higher.”

Quick Facts

Career Highlights

Represents: USA
Birthdate: February 5, 1982
College: Roberts Wesleyan College ’04
Hometown: Fredonia, NY
Residence: Rochester, NY
Coach: Rick Suhr
Affiliation: Adidas
Sport: Pole Vault
  • 2012 Olympic Champion
  • 2008 Olympic Silver Medalist
  • 2008 IAAF World Indoor
    Championships Bronze Medalist
  • American Record-holder
    Indoors/Outdoors
  • #2 in the World All-Time

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