Lakeville South pole vaulter Lee Bares bounded down the runway toward a state record last Tuesday, urged on by more than 100 fellow track and field athletes clapping in unison.
Four hours into a vault competition that lasted until twilight, Bares soared over the bar set at 15 feet, 9 inches. The crowd in Lakeville roared as he came down, bounced up from the landing pit, threw his helmet in the air and hugged family and friends.
Then the senior grounded himself in reality of one of the most unusual pole vaulting seasons in years, and not just because of the weather.
Two other seniors — two-time Class 1A champion Grant Krieger of Blake and Mitch Valli of Buffalo — also boast personal bests of 15-9 or higher, though both did so outside of high school competition. All three are friendly rivals who plan to continue pushing the bar upward in hopes of topping 17 feet before the state meet is over.
“We’ve talked about how we’re going to chase down the state record; it’s going to be in one of our names this year,” said Bares, winner of the past two Class 2A championships. “For now, it’s in my name.”
Bares and Krieger, both former gymnasts, first picked up poles not by choice but by circumstance.
Bares said his father, David, told him over dinner that he signed up the then-sophomore for the event and overruled Bares’ objections. Krieger, a skinny seventh-grader facing the prospects of a grueling sprint workout, opted for pole vault.
Valli began “vaulting” at age 4, using PVC pipe for a pole to clear a broomstick held aloft by bricks. His stepfather, Paul Herda, coached MIAC vaulters at St. John’s. Bored with baseball, Valli believed his interest piqued the night Herda suggested he try pole vault.
Valli said watching from the grandstand as Bares and Krieger won their first state titles in 2011 provided the incentive he needed to join them in competition last spring. Valli finished tied for fourth in the Class 2A event but upped the ante a few weeks later by vaulting 15-9 at the USATF Minnesota Junior Olympic Championships in Eagan with Bares and Krieger on hand.
Krieger took the lead in March with a vault of 16-1¼ at the New Balance Indoor Nationals in New York.
Bares’ mark of 15-9, set at a True Team section meet, renewed his peers’ competitive zeal.
“I was like, ‘Finally,’ ” Valli said. “That’s just what we needed — one person to break the record, because after that it’s going to be a battle. It’s going to go back and forth with all three of us.”
Bares and Krieger vault together in the offseason at Fuzion Athletics. Valli trains alone with Herda at Zero Gravity vault club based out of his grandparents’ company warehouse in Buffalo. By coincidence, Herda used to compete against Jim Wolter, Bares’ vault coach at Lakeville South, in master’s level pole vault events.
Valli said pole vaulting is “100 percent muscle memory when you get in the air because it’s so fast.” He described the airborne sequence as “lift, lock, leap” as he finds himself along for the ride.
Training together across the nation created bonding opportunities. Bares and Krieger vaulted in Oklahoma while Krieger joined Valli in Nevada. Separated by different classes and long distances through much of the high school season, the trio enjoyed competing together in April at the Hamline Elite Meet.
“We were laughing and cracking jokes in the middle of the competition,” Krieger said. Bares won with a vault of 15 feet while Krieger and Valli did not post a qualifying mark. “Part of it is that vaulters in general are crazy, outgoing people. Part of it is that all three of us have developed a close relationship.”
Vaulting, the trio agreed, satisfies their adrenaline fix. By 10 years old, Krieger won titles on the national Kart racing circuit at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour. Bares agreed to join the Lakeville South swimming and diving program with the condition that his father allow him to go cliff jumping. Valli was a varsity wide receiver and punt returner for the past two seasons at Buffalo.
Said Bares: “You have to be crazy to trust a pole and throw yourself 15 feet in the air. I guess you have to be fearless for a couple of seconds, let everything go and trust yourself.”
It all came together on Bares’ second attempt at 15-9 last week. Planting the pole, Bares swung his feet forward until the soles of his shoes were momentarily parallel with the evening sky before he twisted and arched over the bar as he jettisoned the pole.
The crowd, alerted ahead of time by the track’s public address announcer, erupted and Bares clapped his hands during free fall. Bares later noted the sun had set well before his leap and the buzzing stadium lights were not positioned to provide much light. No matter. “Cougars hunt at night,” joked his father, David.
Though he had failed to clear 15-9 more than a dozen times, Bares said he “looked at the bar and for some reason it didn’t look that high.”
Bares, Krieger and Valli shot themselves skyward with a similar ease last week while practicing together after a photo session at Blake’s Hopkins campus. All three took aim at the bungee bar set at 16 feet, 6 inches and were not far from clearing.
Krieger’s ultimate goal is for one of them to clear 17 feet and garner nationwide attention for a state not known for producing elite pole vaulting marks.
“I don’t care which one of us it is, I just want to see the Minnesota state pole vault record at 17 feet or higher,” Krieger said. “I want this group of good vaulters to be remembered.”