A Suhr Gold
Peggy Shin, USA Track & Field
Before Jenn Suhr walked into the Olympic Stadium last night (Aug. 6) for the women's pole vault, her husband (and coach) said, "You're going to win this one."
"He's never said that," said Suhr. "I've competed hundreds of times. He's never said you're going to win."
But she did. Against two-time defending gold medalist Elena Isinbayeva of Russia, Suhr overcame swirling winds and intense emotions to claim the gold medal. It's the first gold for the U.S. in women's pole vaulting since the 2000 Olympic Games, and the third U.S. medal in the event's history.
For Suhr and her husband, Rick Suhr, it was a triumphant end to a tough quadrennial. Back in 2008, the 30-year-old pole vaulter from Churchville, N.Y., was the biggest threat to Isinbayeva's reign as pole vault queen.
But less than a year after Beijing, Jenn Suhr's health took a dive. Until then, her rise in the sport had been meteoric. She only took up the sport in 2004 during her senior year of college. Rick Suhr spotted her playing basketball and liked her aggressive hustle and passion, not to mention her height (6 foot). He suggested she try pole vaulting.
After her first couple of vaults over 10 feet, she looked at a nearby sign that was about 12-feet high and declared that one day she would jump higher than that. Rick Suhr knew she would.
Ten months later, as a complete unknown, Jenn Suhr pole vaulted over 14 feet (4.35 meters) at the 2005 National Indoor Championships. Her rapid progression continued. In 2007, she topped Stacy Dragila's American record. Dragila is the 2000 Olympic gold medalist in pole vaulting.
Then at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, Jenn Suhr jumped 4.92 meters (16'1.7"). Only Isinbayeva has vaulted higher. Jenn Suhr's silver medal in Beijing seemed like the beginning of a great international career dueling with the Russian.
But after a good indoor season in 2009, Jenn Suhr's body began to rebel. She strained her left Achilles tendon. Then other injuries began compounding each other. Frustration mounted. Jenn Suhr could only jump about once a week. Most world-class pole vaulters do twice that.
Jenn Suhr managed to compete when she felt well. But she couldn't achieve high enough fitness to compete internationally. She and Rick Suhr did make it down the aisle though -- marrying on Jan. 3, 2010.
Despite not training hard, Suhr's condition worsened. By summer 2011, her legs began twitching and her stomach cramping. She felt sick, tired and sore all the time.
The Suhrs researched her symptoms and talked to friends. Finally, they asked her doctor to test for Celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune condition that creates a toxic reaction in the small intestine when gluten is ingested. Jenn Suhr immediately overhauled her diet and four days later and felt better. Within a week, she was in the weight room finally increasing muscle mass. Less than a month later, she cleared 4.91 meters (16' 1.3"). By August, she won a Diamond League meet in Europe.
Before arriving in London, Suhr vaulted 4.83 meters -- the world's highest vault in 2012 -- beating Isinbayeva in their last three competitions. But the favorite in London was still Isinbayeva.
Rick Suhr knew differently. He could feel the momentum that his wife had been building all summer in practice. On the plane to London, the passionate coach almost started crying. He had to look out the window so no one would see.
"She's healthy, she's finally healthy," Rick Suhr said. "For her to be healthy and not sick, I think she's the best jumper in the world."
With a cold wind buffeting around Olympic Stadium on Monday night, Jenn Suhr proved her husband right. She easily cleared the bar at 4.55, then 4.70, smiling as she fell to the mat.
By the time the bar was raised to 4.75, only four of the 12-woman field remained: Jenn Suhr and Isinbayeva, Cuba's Yarisley Silva, and Germany's Silke Spiegelburg. When the German missed, the podium was decided. But not who would get what medal. The pressure mounted, and the wind swirled. When Isinbayeva couldn't clear 4.80 (and had missed at lower heights), she was declared the bronze medalist.
It was now down to Silva and Jenn Suhr. For Silva to win (she had misses at lower heights), she had to clear 4.80. When Jenn Suhr missed her final attempt at 4.80, she nervously waited for Silva's last jump and had another intense exchange with her husband.
"If he could get out there and push me over the bar, he would," said Jenn Suhr of her relationship with her husband. "He's done so much for me. He cares so much. People are like, 'Your coach is intense.' It's because he has that passion."
When she realized she won, the tears finally came.
"Heartbreak and joy, then more heartbreak," Jenn Suhr said of the past four years. "To overcome it and come out on top, whenever I thought of it, I'd start crying. I don't think I ever wanted something so bad."
Yelena Isinbayeva finally lost an Olympic pole vault final and left the London Games with a bronze medal, unable to master the fickle British weather and beat the winning performance of American Jenn Suhr
Pole Vault Gold, Soccer Thriller for US Women
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