Commentary: Chapman still guiding pole vaulters to new heights
by Tim Waits
Published: March 13, 2011
In a sport made up almost entirely of a series of specialty events, there might be no track and field event more specialized than the pole vault.
Taking a fiberglass pole and catapulting yourself as high as you can takes a special skill set, mindset and strength set.
For the last 25 years Jack Chapman of Killeen has used his passion for this isolated piece of athleticism to help dozens of young vaulters to go higher than they ever thought possible.
One of the stereotypes of pole vaulters is that they are, well, a little different. They bring an extreme-sport mentality to the ancient art of track and field. Chapman doesn't deny that characterization.
"They like to take it to the edge," said Chapman, 48, who in 2000 was named the Developmental Coach of the Year by United States Olympic Committee. "You're taking a hollow piece of fiberglass and trying to achieve excellent heights."
Chapman established the Texas Elite Pole Vaulting club in 1986 to train aspiring vaulters, of which he once had been. Last summer he built an indoor facility and has some 40 vaulters coming in from all over the state multiple times per week to train under him.
Chapman was born and raised in Killeen, but his family moved to Peoria, Ill. One day as a seventh-grader he watched some pole vaulters and said, "I can do that."
He did it well enough to be offered track and field and football scholarships to UCLA and Illinois, but he opted instead to join the Air Force. After his military stint, he moved back to his "roots" in Killeen, joined the Killeen Police Department and began helping vaulters at Ellison High School on the side. He retired from the Killeen PD and now works nights for the Harker Heights force while training vaulters by day.
"I have to schedule around what they're doing at school and their physical capacity," Chapman said. "You come down the runway 30-35 yards 20 times in a track meet. The competition is a workout by itself.
"When it comes to training, I have a good eye for the vault," he said, adding that he can tell the outcome of an attempt 20 yards before it happens. "I never shut my mind off."
One of his latest prodigies to sign an NCAA Division I scholarship is Harker Heights senior Regan Gilbert, who went from somebody who as a freshman looked like a no-chance proposition to signing with Kansas.
"He came here for two weeks and he was horrible," Chapman said. "He just showed up and looked like Opie Taylor. He wasn't going to be a vaulter at all. But he apparently had a come to Jesus meeting and his attitude and his philosophy changed and now he's one of the nation's best."
Another Chapman disciple is Holland senior Blair Severson, who will be going for his third straight Class A state title this spring.
Perhaps the highest-profile vaulter to come through Chapman's tutelage was a flamboyant teenager from Ellison named Rocky Danners. Danners was rough around the edges when Chapman took him under his wing, mentored him and helped him become one of the first vaulters from Central Texas to clear the 17-foot barrier. Danners earned the 5A state gold medal in 1999 before going on to an All-America career at Tennessee.
Vaulting is not only highly specialized and labor-intensive but also highly expensive. It's difficult for most high school programs to justify the expense that goes into a singular event. One pole can cost $600. A helmet, though not mandatory in Texas, is $100. Chapman said Gilbert carries some $5,000 worth of equipment.
"TCU did away with its pole vaulting program because it's too expensive," said Chapman, who served the country in Kosovo for a year in 2002. "A private coach is more affordable to a school's budget and we have a vast array of poles."
Through the years Chapman has been able to spot the kind of athlete who can become a high-level vaulter and who can't.
"Pole vaulting is unique and requires an expert opinion and eye," he said. "Most can move to the next level. They can go somewhere. There's a level of school for just about every vaulter."
He likes vaulters who might also be skilled in the hurdles or girls who also play volleyball or who came from a gymnastics background. Athletes gifted in cross-country running have little hope of excelling in the vault, he said.
Pole vaulting for girls created a mild controversy when it was instituted 10 years ago, but Chapman never was skeptical. He tutored three-time 2A state champion Hali Henderson of Clifton, who went on to vault for Texas A&M, 4A state champion Ashley Laughlin of Marble Falls, who competed at Texas, and two-time 3A state runner-up Leslie Starnes of Rockdale, who later vaulted for Texas Christian.
"With girls there's not a built-in fear factor once they realize they can do this," Chapman said. "They are more coachable than boys."
Maybe more than any other event, vaulters have their own community.
"It's a family within itself," said Chapman, who's been married to Kelly for 28 years. "You might see kids from Harker Heights, Temple, Gatesville and Holland all sitting together. You may have three vaulters from three divisions and all three are using the same poles. You don't see that in any other sport. In baseball, if a guy hits a home run you don't see a guy from the other team ask to use that bat."
Vaulting also has the greatest potential for a catastrophic injury in the sport. Safety and discipline are at the forefront of Chapman's teaching.
"Three things that can get you killed or seriously hurt: your ego, your coach's ego or your parent's ego," he said. "Kids are resilient and work hard. I tell them they can be good through Christ and through academics. You have to have your priorities in line to be successful in the classroom."