Of all the relationships in Leslie Brost’s life, none has tested her quite as thoroughly as the one she has with her sport. “Pole vaulting will never love you as much as you love it,” she lamented, after an aggravating afternoon of practice at Armstrong High School. “It’s frustrating. It’s infuriating. It’s sadistic.”
So why, then, did Brost quit her two jobs a month ago to train full-time for the Olympic trials? Because when that one great vault comes together — when the perfect confluence of physics, geometry, muscle and will send her soaring over the bar — all is forgiven. “That’s the feeling that keeps you coming back, that mini-high you keep searching for,” she said. “You can have 364 frustrating days in this sport, but if there’s one great one, you’re probably in for another year.”
That explains why Brost and training partner Zach Siegmeier traveled all over the country, largely at their own expense, to chase the qualifying standards for the Olympic trials that begin Friday in Eugene, Ore. Brost, a South Dakota native, got the mark and will compete July 8 at Hayward Field. Siegmeier, a former Gophers athlete from suburban Chicago, came up short but was added to the men’s field two days before Saturday’s competition.
Their quest led them to strap their 19-foot-long pole cases to the roof of a car and drive to meets as far away as Kansas and Kentucky. It convinced them to detour to a competition in Ames, Iowa — on their way home from one in Wichita — because the weather was nice enough to jump again. It spurred Siegmeier and Jack Szmanda, Brost’s fiancé, to build a 142-foot wooden runway to practice on at the Armstrong track.
It’s unlikely either will be among the three men and three women who make the team for the Rio Olympics. But it won’t be for lack of trying, or for want of support.
In addition to the Twin Cities Track Club, which supplies Brost and Siegmeier with camaraderie and an occasional stipend, others addicted to the same elusive rush have pitched in by participating in pop-up qualifying meets, donating money and commiserating over a sport none of them can quit.
“When pole vaulting isn’t going well, you question everything,” Siegmeier said. “You’ve dedicated your whole life to it, and you just want to walk away. Then you have a great jump, and it’s fun again. There’s nothing else like it.”
Finding needed support
A former gymnast, Brost took up the pole vault in high school and went on to win All-America honors and five Summit League titles at North Dakota State. She moved to the Twin Cities after graduating in 2013 to train with Gophers pole vault coaches Steve and Caroline White. Siegmeier, who also is coached by the Whites, concluded his Gophers career in 2014 as a three-time Big Ten champ and two-time All-America.
Both set personal indoor bests in March as Brost finished sixth (14 feet, 9 inches) and Siegmeier tied for seventh (18-0 ½) at the U.S. indoor championships. Ten days ago, they were vaulting in a less glamorous environment. With Siegmeier still chasing an Olympic trials qualifying mark and Brost trying to improve hers, the Whites put out a call for a mini-meet at Armstrong, with a USA Track and Field official there to certify any significant results.
On a steamy day, vaulters ranging from preteens to 50-plus — including the Whites and their 9-year-old son, Henry — charged down the homemade runway and sailed over a bar held aloft by two wobbly standards. Brost and Siegmeier did not nail that great jump they craved, but they took comfort in the company of a pole vaulting community that, according to Caroline White, “is like a bowling league, with better abs and less alcohol.”
“We all know each other,” White said. “We’re one of the only track and field events that schedules our own events, like street vaults and the Brit’s Pub Vault [on the rooftop of the downtown Minneapolis restaurant]. And with Zach and Leslie, people want to help however they can.”
That assistance has come in many forms, from many places. The Twin Cities Track Club, which sponsors the annual Brit’s Pub Vault, helps with travel expenses and sanctioning the mini-meets. Brost worked for a running-gear store and did clerical work for employers that granted her flexible hours. She and Siegmeier also coach at the camps run by the Whites’ Flight Deck Athletics club.
Both athletes lead what Brost calls “a starving-artist existence,” scraping together money for gas, equipment and the occasional plane fare to feed their passion.
“There’s been a lot of winging it, trying to figure out where we’re going, where we’re staying and how we’re getting there,” Brost said. “You do what you can with what you have.”
An irresistible pull
What they have in spades are the hallmarks of top-shelf pole vaulters: a little X Games flair, a dash of perfectionism and an outsized competitive streak. The Whites, North Dakota State coach Stevie Keller and U strength guru Cal Dietz kept Brost and Siegmeier progressing on their way toward the trials, while the pole vault’s unrelenting hold on their psyches kept the tough times from derailing them.
Since Brost achieved her outdoor personal best of 14-9 ½ at a street vault in Mexico, she has spent nearly a year pursuing the 15-foot mark. Siegmeier felt like he wanted to quit two weeks ago, before Brost talked him into stopping off at the meet in Iowa. He jumped a personal-best 18-4 ½, which earned him an invitation Wednesday to compete in his first Olympic trials.
The two vaulters will soon concentrate on more down-to-earth goals. Brost will start grad school in the fall, and Siegmeier has designs on becoming a college track coach. Both are planning weddings to former Gophers track athletes, with Brost engaged to Szmanda and Siegmeier to Emily Betz.
Even then, they may not be able to resist the lure of a sport they find frustrating, infuriating, sadistic — and utterly addictive.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve had to be talked off the ledge,” Siegmeier said. “But I always come back.”