Sommers, Callahan eye new heights

The top five at the 2019 Arcadia Invitational all cleared at least 13 feet with champion Chloe Cunliffe of Washington (far right) setting a National HS Record of 14-08. Next to her (r-l), Paige Sommers (Westlake/SS), then a sophomore, was second (13-05), and Ashley Callahan (Rancho Bernardo/SS), also a sophomore, Isabella Grant (Presentation/NC), a senior, and Elizabeth Funk (Clovis West/CS), a senior, each cleared 13-01. Funk would go on to PR at 13-09. Callahan would clear 13-04 to beat Sommers for the CIF-State title. Cunliffe would have three more outdoor meets of 14-plus clearance before turning pro. (Credit: Jeffrey Parenti)



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SAN DIEGO -- If Tom Martin could build the perfect pole vaulter, they would have real sprinters' speed, the agility and fearlessness of a world-class gymnast and the strength of a shot putter.

The Rancho Bernardo High vault coach realizes that's unrealistic at best, ridiculous at worst.

Say you found a girl who could put the shot 40-feet and run an 11.50 second 100. She would have a have a large upper body with less than log-like legs for the 100. And there would be the blink-blink sight of that athlete trying to maneuver fearlessly doing flips on a 4-inch wide balance beam in gymnastics.

That said, an athlete possessing at least a modicum of all three traits is kind of what has happened to the event since he first started coaching it 37 years ago. 

The athletes, boys and girls alike, are bigger, stronger, faster and more agile. The evolution of the poles themselves, not to mention better competition, have resulted in mostly steady but sometimes dramatic improvement.

Martin is anxious to see Westlake Village Westlake High junior Paige Sommers again. 

Sommers, who was scheduled to compete at the Redondo Nike Track Festival before it was canceled for public safety reasons, recently improved a full foot to open the season with a state record 14-6 vault at the Thousand Oaks Invitational.

"I believe she has worked so hard that she's comfortable on a 14-foot pole," said Martin, 62. "You look at those poles and try bending them and you'd think they would never work in a meet.  But you see the vaulters getting a good bend, so you know they can go higher.

"I've seen a lot of guys on big poles who just soar over heights like 16 feet by more than a foot in practice, so it's just a matter of time until they're clearing 17. It's really all about the poles."

Watch Paige Sommers' vaults at 14-plus feet at the Thousand Oaks Invitational

Sommers' 14-6 vault, the National Junior Record and just two inches off the recognized national record of 14-8 set by Washington's Chloe Cunliffe at the Arcadia Invitational a year ago, had an immediate affect on defending state champion Ashley Callahan of Rancho Bernardo, who cleared a San Diego Section record-equaling 13-6 last year at the Mt. SAC Relays.

"At first I thought, 'Oh, my God, that's a foot PR. That's insane,' Callahan told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "I stayed awake Sunday night thinking about it, but by Monday I was motivated. Now, 14 feet is still my goal, but by the end of the season I want 14-6 or better.

"I'm on a bigger pole now and I'm motivated -- really motivated. Paige is a friend and I congratulate her. We're both juniors and I love the competition."

Workout video with Callahan and other members of her off-season training club

There is the other part of the equation -- competition. There were more 13-foot or better girls vaulters at the CIF-State Meet last year and that number doesn't really figure to go down as the bar goes up.

It turns out, Sommers, who is coached be her dad John, an 18-0.50 vaulter who attended UCLA, was actually on a 14-6,165-pound pole when she cleared her 14-6, the fifth personal record in a single day in which she took 19 jumps, not counting warmups.

"My dad said maybe we should quit when I got my first PR at 13-9.  I was so tired, but I didn't want there to be any "what ifs," so I kept going. When I got 14-3, he said 'let's just call it a day.' But my adrenalin was going.

"I was really tired by the time I tried 14-9."

Consider that the 5-11.50 Sommers jumped on a 14-6 pole after the State Meet last year and says she's completely comfortable, looking to be consistent between 13-9 and 14-feet.

"Paige is a natural athlete," said her father. "She'll probably run the 100-meter hurdles some. She's very, very coordinated.  This is the first year she's lifted weights and she does a lot of plyometrics."

Asked if his daughter would be the first-ever high school girl to clear 15, this year, John hesitated.

"I don't know, but she absolutely can go 14-9.50 (that's a half-inch higher than the all-time best for Cunliffe in an all-comers meet)," he said. "We'll see. On any given day, though, she might go 15. Remember, she's just a junior."

The word "we" is something Paige appreciates. Not everyone can live with their parent as a coach, but Paige says it's truly a team effort and whenever she does well, it's a 'we' accomplishment.

Besides, she has already cleared the same height her father topped out while attending Agoura High. So, what about his PR of 18-0.50?

To that you get a good laugh and a reminder that the women's world pole vault record is 16-7.

John said he never pushed Paige but she started bugging him to let her try near the end of the sixth grade.

"We'd sneak on high school pole vault pits and we got caught a couple of times," said John, chuckling. "She entered an all-comers meet that summer and cleared 7-6. In the seventh grade she was at 9-6 and 11 the next year.

The event itself has come a long, long way.

Martin said that in 1995 he had two girls try out. He has 16 on the team this year -- a normal turnout.

"The school record was 7-6 and a really, really good vault was 11-feet," recalled Martin.

In 1994, the girls pole vault was an exhibition at the State Meet at Cerritos College. Kingburg's Melissa Price vaulted an American record 11-2 to beat Agoura's Jocelyn Chase, the only two competitors.

At the same site a year later, Price set another AR, soaring 12-6 -- almost two feet ahead of the next-best clearance of 10-10. But at least there was a full field.

The next year Martin had a girl, Dawn Halfaker who set the school record at 8-6 but she was the only competitor at the State Meet with a straight pole -- no bend on the pole -- and Martin had what he called an 'ah-ha' moment.

"In 1992 I had a freshman boy pole vaulter who let go of the pole and hit his head on the box," said Martin. "He almost died but ended up fully recovering. Ever since then, I've been considered somewhat of a conservative coach, who doesn't take unnecessary chances. When I saw the girls bending the pole, it changed my thinking.

"The very next year I had Tracy O'Hara."

O'Hara was an ex-gymnast with lots of strength. She pushed the state record to 12-8 but the very next year, ex-teammate Kathleen Donoghue bettered that at 12-8.50.  Morro Bay's Shayla Balentine became the first state champ over 13 feet in 2002 with a national record 13-8 and Anaheim Canyon's Rachel Baxter became the first to top 14-feet with a 14-2 in 2016.

Sommers and Callahan figure to go head-to-head at some point if the season returns. 

"I'd really like to compete in the Olympic Trials this summer," said Sommers. "The standard, I believe, is 15-feet but they take the top 24. That would be a great experience."