US record holder Suhr raising bar in pole vault

(Eds: Adds details, quotes. With AP Photos.)By PAT GRAHAMAP Sports Writer

Rick Suhr, the husband and coach of the best pole vaulter in the U.S., realizes he may need to raise the roof for his star pupil.

He may simply have no other choice with Jenn Suhr practically leaping through the ceiling.

Inside their custom-built domed practice facility near Rochester, N.Y., Suhr, a college basketball standout turned Olympic silver medalist, almost scrapes the top of the 20-foot structure with her feet each time she vaults.

And while raising the roof is an expensive undertaking, it’s a small price for someone routinely raising the bar to new heights.

Jenn Suhr broke her own American record two weeks ago in Boston, when she easily soared over 16 feet. This, after failing to clear any height in a competition at Madison Square Garden the week before.

With that no-height performance came the chatter: Maybe Suhr was off her game, perhaps even enough to open the door for others with the 2012 London Olympics right around the corner.

She quickly quashed that notion, proving the 30-year-old is still one of the best in the business.

Suhr’s performance in Boston is tops in the world this season and elevated her to the rank of second-best indoor vaulter of all-time, behind only Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva, the two-time reigning Olympic champion.

”To break the mark (in Boston) definitely showed me I’m on the right track,” said Jenn Suhr, who will compete this weekend at the U.S. indoor championships in Albuquerque, N.M. ”It was a good performance.”

This has been a rather rapid rise to the top for Suhr.

Just eight years ago, Suhr – known then as Stuczynski – was leading Roberts Wesleyan, a tiny liberal arts college in upstate New York, to the NAIA championship game by averaging 24.3 points and 6.7 rebounds.

Her intensity during a pickup game caught the eye of Rick Suhr. A 6-foot guard/forward, she was throwing elbows that demonstrated her toughness and swiftly running the floor to show off her agility. Even at first sight, he believed he could channel those skills on the court into vaulting, and asked her to give it a try.

Rather reluctantly, Jenn Suhr agreed.

Almost immediately, she succeeded, winning the NAIA indoor national title in 2005 by clearing just over 13 feet.

And while maybe she once resembled a ”crawfish crawling over the bar” – her coach’s description – she now possesses a pole vaulter’s grace, having captured 10 U.S. titles and a silver medal in Beijing.

”To me, what Jenn has done in a short period of time is unbelievable,” said Rick Suhr, who married the American indoor and outdoor record holder two years ago. ”It would be like one of us picking up a golf club and going out and winning the U.S. Open or the Masters. It’s amazing.”

Her training venue is definitely one-of-a-kind.

Rick Suhr has connected two steel Quonset huts, one with a long, narrow tunnel measuring 100 feet for the run-up. That feeds into the bigger room which has a ceiling with enough clearance for the vault – or so they once thought.

This time of year, the place is heated by two propane blowers. But that hardly helps keep it warm, with the facility hardly ever creeping above 30 degrees. To ward off the cold, Jenn Suhr bundles up, wearing layer upon layer.

”Almost looks like I’m going sledding,” Jenn Suhr said, laughing.

When she’s not training in the hut, she’s refining her technique by vaulting in the deep end of a filled indoor swimming pool.

Jenn Suhr will hold her breath, dive down to the bottom, grab hold of the submerged pole and go through her routine. She then pops up out of the water and attempts to clear a garden hose that serves as a makeshift bar.

She’s become quiet proficient at it, too. She may even hold the top mark in the underwater pole vault – if one, of course, were kept.

”I like underwater pole vaulting, because you can have perfect form without the risk,” she said.

These days, healing has been a top priority. She’s been battling a nagging Achilles tendon ailment for years, an injury that knocked her out of the 2009 world championships in Berlin.

”At times, it’s not a problem. But then, out of nowhere, it will flare up,” explained Suhr, who was fourth at worlds in Daegu, South Korea, last summer. ”It’s something we’re on top of and in tune with.”

The same goes for her diet.

Last May, she was diagnosed with celiac disease, which is a reaction to gluten in wheat or other grains.

Steadily, she’s been getting the disorder in line. She doesn’t want to go through another season like last summer, when she was constantly fatigued and easily cramped.

Now, she’s eating more fish (like salmon, which she doesn’t particularly care for) and avoiding foods such as pizza and pasta.

So far, it’s working. She was as healthy as she’s been in a while during the Boston meet, when she improved her American record and even made one attempt at the world mark, only to miss and call it a night because of her aggravating Achilles injury.

”If I could compete at home, and never leave Rochester, I’d be in perfect condition,” she said. ”But once you start traveling, things go haywire fast.”

Her diet is just one thing she’s paying more attention to this season. She’s also lifting more, concentrating on speed work and studying different techniques in the event.

She and her husband are pole vaulting aficionados, watching hours of footage and picking up tips by studying former greats such as Sergei Bubka.

”I don’t know if there’s a pole vault DVD we haven’t watched,” Rick Suhr said. ”We’ve really absorbed a lot of different techniques. That’s how you learn and get better.”

And that’s also how to vault through the roof, which Jenn Suhr is on the verge of accomplishing inside her distinctive training facility.

”Raising the roof will not be easy,” Rick Suhr said. ”But I think it’s going to be a good problem to have.”

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