Sommers, Colella Soar to Big Red Barn Pole Vault Meet titles

Framed against the painted sunset sky, Westlake High junior Paige Sommers begins her approach at the Vaulter Magazine Big Red Barn Pole Vault Meet on Saturday in Menifee. (All photos by Karen Ocskasy)


MENIFEE -- There was a pole vault-only meet on Saturday.


In the middle of a pandemic.

In a county where mask requirements and social distancing guidelines were relaxed a bit more than others, there was an athletic competition.

It was weird.

It was different.

It was refreshing.

And it was ohhhhh, sooo, cool!!!

Paige Sommers, who hadn't competed since the first week of March, had modest expectations for herself at Saturday's Big Red Barn Pole Vault Meet. Who could blame her after three full months of trying to maintain an elite level of conditioning after setting a CA state high school record in late February. 

Luigi Colella, who holds dual U.S./Italian citizenship, said he was simply looking for an opportunity to compete while awaiting a chance to return to Italy. 

The two pole vaulters with ties to Westlake High were the winners of the inaugural grassroots event sponsored by Vaulter Magazine and held at a private one-pit facility in the shadow of, you guessed it, a big red barn.

Sommers, a junior at Westlake High, cleared 14-0 to defeat 2019 CIF-State Meet champion Ashley Callahan and 2019 State Meet medalist Katerina Adamiec, among an elite girls field of 11. 

Colella, who began his prep career at Westlake High before transferring to Thousand Oaks HS where he won the State Meet title in 2013, cleared 17-0 on Saturday to defeat brothers Kyle Brown and Garrett Brown, who both topped out at 16-6. The boys elite field also had 11 competitors.


The elite field of the all-day event competed toward the end of the afternoon and into the evening. Lead organizer Doug Bouma, the Executive Director of Vaulter Magazine, said there were roughly 70 participants spread in groups of 12-15 over five skill-level-based flights. The event drew vaulters from Illinois, Nevada and Washington as well as California. All came looking for a competition oasis amid the coronavirus pandemic storm. 

"If it wasn't for a pandemic, we wouldn't have had such a great meet," Bouma said. 

On May 22, Riverside County moved into an accelerated Stage 2, the middle of five stages in the state's COVID-19 Reopening guidelines. 

"Because we spread it out, it wasn't that bad," Bouma said. "Plenty of social distancing. ... A lot of talking. A lot of gathering. A lot of healing. A lot of healing sitting out here talking and reminiscing with family and friends they haven't seen for months and coming out and doing this kind of fun stuff."

Sommers said she was looking to prep for a meet next weekend in Arizona.

It was late February at the Thousand Oaks Invitational, just a week into the 2020 outdoor season, where she cleared 14-6 to establish a new CA record, a jump that is the fourth-highest in U.S. prep history. During her walkup to that lofty height, she also cleared 14-0 and 14-3.

Saturday's clearance was her fourth over 14 feet this year. And she concluded the event with three attempts at 14-8.50 in hopes of breaking the national high school record of 14-8 set by Chloe Cunliffe of Seattle in 2019. 

"It was definitely unexpected," Sommers said. "I've just been training through this little break we've had. I've been going back to five strides because I didn't stop sprinting, weightlifting, so my legs are pretty dead. ... Today was my first day doing an eight-stride. It was kind of an unknown how high I was going to jump.

"In the car my dad and I talked about it and we're like, '12-6 would be a perfect day to just get back into it and for meets later this summer to jump bigger heights.' "

So, what does that make 14-feet?

"Amazing! It's a great day," she said.

To get to 14-0 she first needed to clear 13-5.50, which she did on her final attempt. That's where both Callahan and Adamiec dropped out. From there she had the bar moved to 14 feet, which she cleared on her third attempt before taking three competitive attempts at the national record of 14-8.50. 

Callahan, a junior at Rancho Bernardo High (SD), who beat Sommers at the 2019 CIF-State Championships, the 2020 National Pole Vault Summit indoors and the outdoor Winter Championships, was not able to compete during the three-and-a-half weeks of the 2020 outdoor season because of a foot injury.

She did compete during the all-comers winter season, culminating in her 13-5 clearance for victory at the Winter Championships on February 8. This was her first competition since but she was unable to exceed her 13-6 outdoor PR, missing at 13-6.50.

"I did pretty good (Saturday) considering this whole season was wiped out and I never ended up going to a meet," she said. "I wish I did better. I wish I (cleared) on first attempt every time. But, considering I've only practiced not that much, I'm pretty happy. I just wish I got 13-7."

While Callahan wasn't able to hit a PR, two other teammates from her North County Pole Vault Club did.  Adamiec hit 13-0.75 on her third attempt, and Sage Creek (SD) sophomore Maya Grudman pushed over 12-6.75, both earning a ring of the PR bell that was positioned between the runway and spectator seating.

Colella, 24, said he competes for Fiamme Gialle, a military sport team based out of Rome, Italy. He's been taking classes at Cal State Northridge "half of it online" and, because of the pandemic, has not been able to travel "for 70-plus days." 

His primary objective in competing at the Big Red Barn Meet is to prepare for the Italian National Championships on the schedule for later this summer. But finding training facilities available has been a challenge.

"The stadiums that I usually go to have been closed off for the time being," Colella said. "Until the athletic directors or administrators contact us we cannot use the pole vault pits and I don't have one in my backyard. Unfortunately."

Colella said this was the second time he's been at the Vaulter Magazine facility. And it sounds like it wont be the last. 

"I invite all the vaulters, if they want (to come out)," he said. "It's a fast, good runway, standards are nice and Doug is great."

Colella opened at 15-6.25 (4.73 meters) and was clean until missing three times at 17-5 (5.31m).

Kyle Brown, a redshirt junior at UCLA who prepped at La Costa Canyon (SD), oozes passion and emotion for the sport. Garrett Brown, a junior at La Costa Canyon, hit his PR of 16-6 and broke his brother's meet record at the Mt. Carmel Field & Distance meet, the last meet before the shutdown.

On Saturday, Kyle appeared as energized when Garrett -- whom he helps coach -- equalled his PR as he was frustrated with himself when he failed to clear 17 feet. 

"I'm super pumped for him," Kyle Brown said. "He's only done that once before. Seeing him come back after not really being able to jump much, pole vault is so technical and timing-based, for him to not have jumped very much and just come right back into it three months later and equal his best is incredible." 

The Browns said they have a pit in their backyard that has allowed them to stay in condition. Saturday was the first competition for Kyle since the MPSF indoor meet in late February. 

"That little competition adrenaline, wasn't used to that," Kyle said. "I think that's why I needed to be on bigger poles. That's what kind of pushed me through that last (attempt), pushed me a little too hard."

Garrett, whose 16-6 school record at Mt. Carmel ranked No. 1 in CA for the abbreviated outdoor season and equalled No. 2 U.S., had a unique experience Saturday: Attempting 17 feet for the first time.

"It's a little nerve-wracking because you're at the end of the runway looking at bar and it's pretty high up in the air," Garrett Brown said. "You just have to do what you do, do what you practice and give it your best. That's what I think I did."

The Browns said they are planning to compete next weekend in Arizona. 

"I know (Garrett) wasn't sure how he was going to do (Saturday), not having jumped me," Kyle said. "Obviously, he's ready to go. For me, I've been coming up here and practicing at this facility. The past couple weeks I've been jumping really well. I didn't jump as well as I wanted to today. I have a little chip on my shoulder to bounce back next week. We'll see. Get on the bigger sticks and hopefully jump 17-plus. Both of us."

Among those who traveled from out of state was the Ifft family from Illinois, long time friends with Bouma.

Chandlar Ifft, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, won the Illinois State 2A title with a 16-0 clearance his senior year at Fairbury (IL) Prairie Central HS in 2019. He was competing for the first time since the Big Ten Indoors at the end of February and the first time outdoors since last July. Competing with unfamiliar poles, he opened at 15-6.25, cleared on his second attempt, but was out at 16-0. 

Lillianna Ifft, is a sophomore at Bloomington HS after competing her freshman year at Prairie Central where she place third at the Illinois State 2A Meet with a 12-3 PR.


Updated 6/10 to correct the name of the Mt. Carmel meet.