TRACK AND FIELD: Gymnast a convert to pole vault

Kentwood senior Jamie Larsen was second in the pole vault at the Tacoma Invitational with a 9 1/2 feet vault.  - Shawn Skager/Reporter
Kentwood senior Jamie Larsen was second in the pole vault at the Tacoma Invitational with a 9 1/2 feet vault.
— image credit: Shawn Skager/Reporter

It took some convincing — nearly two years worth of prodding, needling and pleading.

Last spring, Kentwood High track and field coach Steve Roche finally got his point across to Jamie Larsen: give track a try — specifically the pole vault — and big success will follow.

Roche saw Larsen's competitive drive on the gymnastics mat. But it was her sheer athleticism that ultimately drew the coach to the pupil.

"A lot of great pole vaulters are former gymnasts," Roche said, essentially explaining why he kept on Larsen’s case.

At the time, however, Larsen's heart was with gymnastics, a sport she began as a toddler.

"He tried to get me to come out when I was a freshman," said Larsen, now a senior. "I was involved in club gymnastics and was just too busy."

It took a break, or rather a crack, before Roche finally got through to Larsen.

During her junior year in gymnastics, Larsen cracked a rib. In a sport where twists, turns, flips and tremendous balance are paramount, a razor-sharp pain in her side relegated Larsen to merely being a fan. The only way to heal was rest.

"It was fun," Larsen said of gymnastics. "But I had been doing it for so long and I wanted to try something new."

Larsen turned to Roche, who handed the standout gymnast a pole.

The transition could not have gone smoother.

"I love it," Larsen said of the pole vault. "It's a lot more relaxed than gymnastics. It's the funnest thing I have ever done."

And, as she quickly discovered, Roche was right — gymnasts do, in fact, make outstanding pole vaulters.

In a little less than two years with the sport, Larsen has ascended quickly, becoming one of the South Puget Sound League's highest flyers in the event.

How high?

High enough to finish among the state's top 14 during last spring's Star Track at Edgar Brown Stadium in Pasco. And, high enough during a recent meet to establish a new school record. Even high enough to break that record three days later, culminating with the 10-3 mark she established in mid-April at the Pasco Invitational, officially putting the school mark of 9-9 set by Nikki Ironside in 1999 well behind her.

Roche figured it was only a matter of time.

"I think the only thing that would stop her from breaking the record is some sort of season-ending injury," Roche said days before Larsen broke the mark for the first time.

And now?

"She made me a prophet," Roche said. "I knew it was coming. I told her the new challenge is to set that record so high that it won't get broken."

Setting the record has simply fueled Larsen's competitive desire.

"I am aiming above that," said Larsen, who continued with gymnastics this past winter, when she took fourth in the all around and fifth on the uneven parallel bars at state this past winter.

That certainly would continue her upward trend. The mark Larsen set at the Pasco Invitational is a foot and a half better than she was able to go last year.

One could easily tab Larsen as a natural in the sport. However, with the strong correlation between gymnastics and the pole vault — the similar flips, turns and aerial acrobatics involved — she actually has been working on it for years, albeit unknowingly.

Matter of fact, three of the top four pole vaulters in the SPSL North — Larsen, Auburn Riverside's Rebecca Turnbow and Kentlake's Brianne Gould — are standout gymnasts.

"There are a lot of the same movements," Larsen said. "Catching on to it came pretty quick to me."

Plenty of what Larsen has accomplished is due to her athletic nature, But Roche made clear that Larsen also has put in the time.

"She has been to a couple camps, has put in a lot of reps," he said. "Her success is a combination of natural athletic ability and her background. I've had several coaches come up to me and say, 'Wow, she has got the perfect physique for this event.' And not a lot of high school girls are as strong as her. She is very cut, very athletic, but very strong as well.

"She has a gift and I don't think she has reached her potential yet."

That gift has turned into a passion for Larsen, who hopes to continue her pole-vaulting pursuits at the college level next year.

As for the moment, Larsen hopes to stand tall on the podium in May at the end of the state meet. She isn't the favorite — that status goes to Richland's Jessica Christian, who won it last year — but is considered among a small handful legitimate challengers.

"I definitely hope to place this year," Larsen said. "I want to get well above 10 feet."

For Jamie Larsen, aiming at that won’t take any convincing.

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