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For pole-vaulting star Jenn Suhr, competing is big leap of faith
She has bounced back from injury to take another run at gold in London
6:25 PM, Aug 1, 2012 | Comments
Jenn Suhr was done. Toast. Outta here.
Her dreams of Olympic gold weren’t just tarnished, they were finished.
“We sat there for three days wondering how we were going to tell everyone we’re done,” said her coach and husband, Rick Suhr.
The world’s top-ranked pole vaulter tore her right quadriceps during a workout at her home in Riga in late May. The Olympic Trials were 4 ½ weeks away, and she had to finish in the top three to qualify for the London Games.
And now she could barely walk, let alone soar 15 feet over a bar.
“It was just a terrible feeling,” said Suhr, a Fredonia native and Roberts Wesleyan graduate who won a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
“We were in shock,” Rick said. “Jenn stayed upstairs for two days. We didn’t even talk about it. Im about to cry just talking about it now.”
Jenn nursed her injured quad and stayed away from the pole, skipping the Prefontaine Classic and adidas Grand Prix.
And she prayed. Unsure of how her leg would respond, the pair traveled to Eugene, Ore., in late June for the Trials.
“I just told Jenn, ‘I think you can jump high enough to qualify,’ “ Rick said.
He was right. Jenn only jumped twice but cleared 15 feet, 1 inch to win the Trials, beating runner-up Becky Holliday (14-11) and Lacy Janson (14-9).
Next stop: The London Olympics, and another chance at gold. The qualifiers are Saturday at 10:20 a.m. London time (5:20 a.m. here). The finals are Monday at 7 p.m. (2 p.m. here).
“I can’t wait,” Suhr said. “I’m super excited.”
As always, standing in her way is Russian legend Yelena Isinbayeva, the two-time Olympic gold medalist. After taking 2011 off, Isinbayeva set a world record (for the 28th time) in the indoor vault this past February and seems primed for another gold rush. At 30, she’s four months younger than Suhr.
Suhr’s own coach and husband openly calls Isinbayeva “the greatest women’s pole vaulter in history.” But in the next breath, he adds that no 2012 Olympic athlete in any sport has been more victorious than Jenn.
“She’s won 12 U.S. titles,” he said. “Yelena doesn’t have 12 Russian titles. Can you imagine someone winning 12 U.S. Open (golf) championships?”
Sports Illustrated is not impressed. The magazine did not even list Suhr when predicting the medalists: Isinbayeva was first, followed by Brazil’s Fabiana Murer and Germany’s Silke Spiegelburg.
“Oh well,” Jenn said with a smile.
“We don’t care about predictions,” Rick added.
Rick said he believes the women’s pole vault could be the “marquee” event of these Games.
“The Brazilian (Murer) is a world champ and one of the five all-time highest vaulters. There’s Isinbayeva, the best pole vaulter ever, and Jenn. And England has a vaulter, Holly Bleasdale, who could medal. So the place will absolutely erupt.
“The women’s pole vault is going to be amped up.”
Jenn had never even touched a pole until Rick — a former state wrestling champion and standout pole vaulter at Spencerport — saw her playing basketball at Roberts Wesleyan in the spring of 2004. She graduated from Roberts that year with a degree in psychology — and as the Raiders’ all-time scoring leader (1,733 points).
Rick Suhr noticed Jenn had height, speed and athleticism and asked her to try the pole vault. She reluctantly agreed, and was an instant success. After training for only six weeks, she jumped 11 feet, 4 1/2 inches to finish sixth at the NAIA Championships. The next winter, she entered the U.S. Indoor Championships unseeded and emerged as the champion, beating 2004 Olympian Kellie Suttle and 2002 national champ Mary Sauer.
Her career, like her vaults, has only skyrocketed since.
The 2011 season was one of injuries and fatigue for Suhr, who was diagnosed with Celiac disease — a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing certain foods when gluten is consumed. Jenn is now on a gluten-free diet and eats plenty of steak, salmon, fruits, vegetables and gluten-free bread.
“Rick’s pretty much gone gluten-free too,” she said with a laugh. “That’s all I buy.”
Suhr pronounced herself 100 percent healthy. She proved it on July 7, setting a world season-high with a vault of 15-10 at the Gill Field Fest in Champaign, Ill., her final tuneup before London.
“It was a great way to go into the Olympics,” said Suhr, who has continued to work out at the Riga home she shares with Rick.
Suhr’s silver medal in Beijing was overshadowed by controversy over how Rick talked with his star athlete. He was miked by NBC, and many felt he berated her after a second-place finish.
Rick said among things: “It’s the same old, same old. You’re losing takeoff at the big heights. . . . Hey, it’s a silver medal.”
Jenn defended him then and continues to now, saying she had asked him to analyze what she had done wrong. The Suhrs, who were married in 2010, had kept their personal relationship private before the 2008 Olympics.
Four years later, Rick says it’s water under the London bridge. He already has been miked by NBC for another big event and would again if asked for these Olympic Games.
“I think in the end, people that pursued that story looked kind of foolish,” Rick said. “They tried to look for something that wasn’t there. But I think NBC and us are OK.”
In fact, NBC taped the Suhrs leaving for London.
“They think it’s neat what you have to go through with the poles at the airport,” Rick said. “We have a good relationship with NBC.”
Jenn offers no predictions and says she’d be fine with a silver medal to match the one she earned in 2008. But there’s no mistaking her favorite color these days.
“Gold,” she says, “would be the ultimate.”