For Garrett King, there are a few seconds in mid-air where everything morphs into slow motion and silence. Any sense of control is gone until he feels the crash mat engulf him.
It doesn’t happen often, but King lives for those few seconds. “It is the purest form of adrenaline,” he said. “It is pure joy. It is happiness. It’s a feeling unlike any other.”
King is a junior pole vaulter on the UMass Lowell track and field team at the peak of his career and feeling very good about himself. He should.
Two weeks ago at the Boston University Terrier Invitational, he broke UMass Lowell’s 10-year-old school record. Except he didn’t just break the record. He toppled it. He cleared 15 feet 5.0 inches — his best indoor height by far — to surpass the previous mark of 14 feet 9.0 inches set in 2004.
“It was a benchmark for me,” said King, a 2011 graduate of Amesbury High School. “I figured this is what I needed to do if I was going to take this seriously. Now that I have it, I want to push it higher. I want to clear 17 feet.”
Pole vaulters are a rare breed, the loneliest athletes on a team. There just aren’t many of them out there. “I’d say only about 30 percent of the leagues and conferences in Massachusetts compete in the pole vault,” said UMass Lowell assistant coach Patrick Swett, who oversees the program’s jumpers, including King.
Sprinters, jumpers, hurdlers and throwers come in bunches. Pole vaulters require all those things and a little more: speed for the approach; focus to place the pole; strength to lift oneself over the bar; the wherewithal to clear the bar and release the pole — simultaneously — and fall properly.
It’s extremely rare that all those things come together. But when they do, well, King said it best.
“I wake up, go to class and then I focus on the pole vault. Every day,” King said. “When I’m at a meet, I don’t have to worry about having to run the 400-meter dash or doing the high jump. I can just relax and be in the zone for the vault.”
There are very few pure pole vault coaches in college, particularly in New England. Though USATF Level 2 certified, Swett admits he is not an expert and is mostly self-educated. It is an event that requires lots of self-motivation.
“Garrett is very focused in the air,” Swett explained. “He is very athletic in that he can maneuver his body in mid-air. Getting him to understand the physics of the event was just a matter of time. If you tell him his weaknesses, he will work on those weaknesses.”
Every Monday, King drives to Patriot Pole Vault in Shirley, with Swett and teammate Rich Kirby. Not only does King practice the pole vault, he also works the still rings, handstand work and backward rolls into a handstand.
On Tuesdays, he works on jumps. Wednesday is a recovery day. Thursday is group plyometrics and Friday is running hills. Last summer, he did cross-fit every day.
King gave a hint of things to come last spring when he cleared 15 feet 5.0 inches at the New England outdoor championship, where he placed seventh to earn All-New England status.
“His PR in high school was 12 feet, and now he’s scoring at New Englands,” Swett noted. “That was crazy. We told him last year that he needed to get faster and stronger, and he’s taken that to heart.”
King surprised himself. “If they told me in high school what I would be vaulting in college, I wouldn’t know what to say.”
A hockey family
The Kings of Amesbury are a well-known hockey family: Evan King was a goalie at AHS and now attends Norwich University, while Heath is a sophomore on the varsity team. Darrin King is a hockey alumnus of AHS and even his mother played when she was younger.
King would run cross-country in the fall to get in shape for hockey in the winter. The pole vault just kind of found him, and it was love at first attempt.
“I chose track in the spring because I just wanted to stay active, I was a below average distance runner,” he quipped.
As a freshman on varsity, King had a pair of standout seniors he could emulate in Ben Lord and Johnny Landon, who consistently cleared 12 feet 6.0 inches. King worked hard under coaches Ernie Bissaillon and the late Mike Farmer. He would watch YouTube videos of the top pole vaulters in the country.
By the time he was a senior, he wanted the school record, but his best effort, 12 feet 5.0 inches, was six inches short.
“It always kind of bothered me,” he said. “I wanted to be remembered for doing something.”
King is making that happen now. He can rightfully say he is one of the best in New England, and he still has one indoor and two outdoor seasons left.
“They say to hold high, run fast and pray. And that will get you over the bar,” King said. “But getting over 15 get is a little more than that.”