BELTON — With five pits and 290 contestants, there was a steady stream of jumpers at the ninth annual Pole Vaulting Expo Explosion at the Bell County Expo Center.
Annie Rhodes-Johnigan, of Waco, who has jumped in the meet since the eighth grade, won the pro women’s division Saturday by clearing the bar at 14 feet, 6 inches.
A recent graduate of Baylor University, she said this was her first year of competition out of college. As a senior, she said, she set the indoor record of 14 feet, 7¼ inches and the outdoor record of 15 feet, 1½ inches.
“They were really low,” Rhodes-Johnigan said of the records. “So when I came in, I just broke them.”
The jumping pits in the meet were similar to what she’s used to, she said, but the raised runways were “really fast.” She uses a 14-foot, 2-inch carbon fiber pole, and is looking at the 2020 Olympics.
In 2018, she will be trying for the World Championship Indoor, she said.
Compared to other sports, pole vaulting is more like a family, Rhodes-Johnigan said.
“I knew every girl I was jumping with today,” she said. “There’s a lot of downtime between jumps. You end up talking with them and sharing with them. They’re your competitors. They are also your friends.”
She knows some of her fellow jumpers from her high school days, when she was in Jack Chapman’s Killeen club, Texas Elite Pole Vaulting, which hosts the Expo pole vaulting event every year.
“When I first saw her, she was a tall, lanky young lady,” Chapman said Saturday.
He remembers Rhodes-Johnigan and Robinson resident Reese Timmons, who later vaulted at Texas Tech University, wore matching sunglasses, he said.
“They were just two little lanky girls with braces and pony tails,” he said.
The one-day meet will be for two days, Dec. 28-29, next year.
Chapman said some credit for this year’s turnout goes to Logan Cunningham, a 2016 Olympic pole vaulter.
“He got some of the girls from Olympic Training Center to come here to jump,” he said. “He’s been here before. He trains in San Antonio with Brooklyn-Dickinson” pole vaulting club.
“This event cannot be done without the nucleus of athletic family members that sacrifice their time during the holidays,” he said.
One of those people is Keith Martin, an assistant coach at the Killeen pole vaulting club. The event has grown from 88 jumpers the first year, Martin said. It’s the second largest pole vaulting event in the U.S. An annual meet in Reno, Nevada, has about 1,000 jumpers.
What the coaches are trying to do, especially for the younger jumpers, he said, is to get them adjusted to the pole, the run, “and then climb up with the pole.”
“A lot of these students have been working with their trainers,” he said. “A lot of them, it’s their first competition.”