Brad Walker has been on a four-year desert sojourn.
The journey has followed a descending course, from the heights of two world championships and an American pole vault record, through a wasteland of injuries and back surgeries. Finally, just recently, Walker emerged into a lush oasis of good health and a renewed attitude.
In like fashion, the American pole vaulting program—at least at the international level—has been tracing a similar path. The global dominance once enjoyed by US vaulters has fallen into a dusty and dry wilderness pilgrimage of its own, while the European vaulters have occupied the void, harvesting (and relishing) the unpicked fruit.
But in the wake of Walker's emergence from his personal walkabout, an escape route may have been forged for the American pole vaulting system as well.
Walker, with fellow pole vaulting great Dean Starkey and wife Jill, have a vision much larger than themselves. They want to see the U.S. vaulting program not only prosper, but dominate once again—beginning at the grassroots level.
So they developed a resource for vaulters at every level of performance—the Atlas Training Center.
Atlas, as an actual physical facility, is still a work in progress, but already Walker and the Starkeys are reaching out through virtual coaching sessions and online instruction through social media called "webinars."
In addition, Walker and Starkey facilitate vault camps. The next camp is March 13 to 15, 2013.
Last week, I had an opportunity to ask Walker some questions concerning his personal goals and his vision for American vaulting in general.
Bleacher Report: How are you feeling physically and mentally going into 2013?
Brad Walker: I believe that 2013 will be the year that I come back into the sport at the level that I was once accustomed to. It's been an unbelievably tough road since about 2008 with injuries, surgeries, etc. but my body hasn't felt this good since, honestly, about college. If you don't learn when the going gets tough, well...you're not that bright. And since the last four years have been tough, I have been able to learn a ton. I know how to fuel my body, what therapies I respond the best to, how to keep certain pole vaulting related injuries at bay, how and when to train, and the list goes on.
I also feel very strongly that the body and mind feed continuously off of one another, and since my body is feeling great, my mind is right there with it. Mentally, I am leaps and bounds ahead of any point in my career. With a body that seems willing, I can't wait to get back on the runway and battle it out with the old nemesis—the crossbar.
B/R: I don't believe I've seen any official results for you this year. Did you purposely skip the indoor season?
BW: The plan was to look at possibly jumping at Indoor Nationals but that was going to be my only meet. The reason being that this year, I have decided to take on a big project, trying to open a high performance center for the US pole vault. The men's pole vault in the US has been in decline for many years, and I think that part of the reason is because most of the elite vaulters have nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Some universities will allow an athlete access to train, normally with limited hours, but it is extremely hard to get what you need from a college coach who is generally coaching four other events and puts in very long hours.
This leaves most vaulters floating. Many train by themselves, with little or no guidance from the people who have experience at the top. They get back pain, or shoulder pain and don't know what to do or how to fix it on the limited budget of a post-collegiate vaulter. The lack of meets and money in the sport is making it significantly harder to maintain health because people just can't afford the right kind of therapy. My goal is to get the best in the US under one roof, so we can all learn, train, and guide one another along the way. Creating that environment will go a long way to getting the US back where it belongs.
I am actually opening my indoor season...this coming Sunday at the Run for the Dream meet in Fresno (Calif.)... [update: using a shortened approach and in his first outing of the season, Walker expressed disappointment in his final height of 5.50 meters (just over 18 feet) at the Dream meet].
B/R: As of today, there are no American vaulters in the Top 20 world indoor rankings. Address your feelings about that.
BW: ...it is disappointing. The US has a long tradition of being a vaulting powerhouse and over the past few years, we have been anything but that. The void that we have is the motivation for the center we are calling Atlas. Partnering up with Dean Starkey, one of America's most successful vaulters, we are working as hard as we can to get an indoor facility set up here in the Phoenix area so we can try to professionalize the way US vaulters train.
B/R: The concept of a webinar (web-based seminar) is new to me. How is that working out?
BW: The webinar came about when Dean and I were trying to put together a package that had value to our Atlas customers. As a way to fund our project, we do virtual coaching online through our site at Atlas Training Center. We both feel that there is a need to get quality information out to the pole vaulting world. The first free webinar went great actually, and we were very happy with the attendance. Through social media we had people make suggestions on what they wanted to hear and covered two separate topics. From there it went into a Q and A. Everyone seemed very positive about it, and even had a young vaulter send me a Facebook message saying this!!
"Kept top arm pressure, let the bottom arm stay neutral, swung the feet back to the hands and caught the pole right out the top... I just PR'd by 10" today lol. Thought you might like to see what your wisdom brought about!!"
B/R: Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie has been the consistent world leader in recent years. What is it he is doing right?
BW: Well, it's hard to put your finger on it really. Renaud is one of those outliers. He isn't very tall or muscular, but the dude can move. He's got great speed on the runway and seemingly endless amounts of energy. Word on the street is he vaults a ton—like a crazy amount, that the bigger guys can't keep up with. His light weight seems like an actual benefit because he can jump using relatively small poles. This causes less stress to his body, and he can just keep taking jumps That being said, technically he is also doing many things very well, so the combination just seems to work.
B/R: The 20-foot barrier (6.10 meters) is only six centimeters above your PR. Have you ever attempted that height in practice?
BW: Never. Any elite pole vaulter who says they have jumped higher in practice is usually full of it. Sure, buddy...I jumped the world record too, last week. The truth is, meets bring adrenaline. Adrenaline brings more speed and more speed equals bigger poles and higher heights. The poles I use in meets usually sit untouched in the shed (during practice). (Same for) most of my close competitors. I just don't have the added push to get on poles that big in practice and the heights reflect that. But I have attempted the world record at a few meets.
B/R: Walk us through the mental challenge of facing a world-record height.
BW: It's a little strange to think about. The high jump and the pole vault are the only two events where the world record stares you in the face before you take the attempt. It doesn't take you by surprise like a great race or a big throw. It looms over you. You make this jump, you are the highest vaulter in the history of the world. But...that feeling is exactly what I'm looking for. I want to assault that record as much as possible. The more you jump at it, the more familiar it feels. Every world record holder has seen that same exact image and overcame. I want to be the next in line.
B/R: That 19-footer in Reno last year. To the untrained eye, it looked like a record-type jump, with a huge clearance and good form. Analyze it for us, Brad.
BW: I remember that jump well, actually. To be honest, it felt a touch flat at takeoff. The flatness caused a little more pole compression which allowed me to time up the top of the jump a touch better and blow over 19 feet by quite a bit. It is not my typical jump, but does have aspects of other jumpers who are jumping well right now. Thanks for reminding me of it...may have to play around with that a bit!!!
B/R: Your alma mater, the University of Washington, has been a real seedbed for top-notch vaulters. What is it about that place?
BW: Easy. Pat Licari. Pat and I started out there at almost the same time. He had been doing some volunteer coaching there for a couple years before, but I was extremely fortunate to have that unknown vault coach working with me. In my opinion, Pat has grown into the best technical coach of the pole vault in the US. I still chat with him regularly about my jump. He has a unique ability to see and understand how small positions and movements can lead to very important weaknesses or strengths. Pat addresses things like the pole carry or dropping of the pole while most other coaches overlook those "small" details. His success speaks for itself.
B/R: Name your favorite indoor vaulting venue. Outdoors?
BW: Favorite venues need two things: a good track and a good memory. For indoors, it's University of Arkansas, home of my first 19-foot jump and NCAA title. Outside, Hayward Field. Jumping the American record in a sold-out Hayward stadium is a memory I will cherish for a lifetime.
B/R: Thank you, Brad, for a very informative interview. Good luck in 2013.
Speaking of Hayward Field (in Eugene, Ore.), Walker will be facing the world's best—including Lavillenie—at the Prefontaine Classic Diamond League meet on June 1, 2013.
Brad Walker's website.
Rojofact: Almost forgotten in the terror-stricken Munich Games of 1972 is the "equal access" issue raised by the East Germans. It was the introduction (and temporary ban) of the new carbon-fiber poles. At the last minute, the Americans were forced to go back to older technology and in so doing, their eight-decades-long string of Olympic gold came to an end.
East German Wolfgang Nordwig nudged the American world-record holder, Bob Seagren, off the podium. Seagren made a valiant attempt to keep the string alive but settled for silver, despite having to vault with an unfamiliar pole.