Story by Meagan Flynn
Photo courtesy of Drake Athletics
“You need to pack up your poles.”
Jenn Suhr had just completed her victory lap around the red, rubber London oval, American flag draped over her back. This is what a man doing his job was telling her as her lap was almost over. Somewhere in between the overpowering chanting of “USA!” and spotting her brother-in-law’s face in the crowd among thousands of strangers cheering for her, Jenn, for a time, couldn’t feel her feet touching the ground as she ran the last meters of her Olympic gold medalist lap.
“It’s something that just doesn’t happen, and it was happening,” Jenn said.
Her poles. Pack up the poles, she thought after reestablishing her bearings. Jenn packed up her poles like she does after every competition, but this time she left the meet with an American pole-vaulting gold medal around her neck.
Just months earlier, Jenn began her outdoor competition season at the Drake Relays. This year, she’ll be back to do the same. It’s early for the pros — normally, they begin competition season toward the end of May. But last year, she and her coach agreed that Relays got her in shape and set the bar early.
“Any time you can come to an area where track is appreciated, it makes you want to come back because you know they’ll appreciate you being there,” Jenn said. “That’s what Des Moines is. It’s tradition.”
Her coach is also her husband, Rick Suhr. The only coach she’s ever had, actually. He is her personal trainer, strength and conditioning whistle-blower, nutritionist and physiologist. Their workout facility is their backyard.
With her husband’s direction, Jenn has won 11 USA national championships — indoors and out. She holds the indoor pole vault world record. With that, on March 2, she became the second woman in history to vault over five meters: 16 feet, 5-and-a-half inches. She is both the indoor and outdoor American record-holder — the best ranked since 2006. She won her first Olympic medal in 2008 in Beijing, the silver, merely four years after discovering the art.
She gives her husband equal credit.
“He has a knack for coaching,” Jenn said. “He has a way of motivating and a way of making you understand, believe and execute.”
The two met when Jenn was a senior in college at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, N.Y. Jenn was a basketball stud, averaging 24.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, leading her team to the NCCAA national championship, leaving with the
school record in points scored. To pole vaulting coach Adam Steinwachs and his assistant, Rick, Jenn was desirable. She agreed to join the team. Ten months later, on nobody’s radar and unseeded, she won the 2005 USA Indoor Championship in pole vaulting.
While still pursuing her master’s studying psychology, she found herself wanting to pursue pole-vaulting instead. To choose between school and the sport was hard, Jenn said. Then she corrects herself: “ … actually, it wasn’t that hard.”
She started her career in pole vaulting in 2006 with Rick while they were still counting change for toll booths and saving for groceries.
“It’s hard to believe what we’ve actually accomplished,” Rick said. “When I start to think about it, it’s mindboggling. … It’s surreal.”
In London last summer, to win the gold, Jenn and her husband had to take risks. It was rainy, damp and cold, “everything you don’t want,” Jenn said. Given the conditions, she figured the top spot, or at least silver, would clear a 15-7 or a 15-8. The strategy is simple: Jump higher than everyone else. But the theory is never as easy as the act. A better strategy was starting with a higher bar height and skipping lower bars — a risk that proved its worth.
Despite the flashing cameras, people in spikes — some in Oxfords — running everywhere, the rain and the gunshots, Jenn was internally calm before her 15-7 gold medal win. Just at another practice, she told herself.
Like she might have been a week ago, with her husband in their backyard — the same makeshift training facility that won them gold — preparing for the Relays.
Jenn will kick off her competition this year on Wednesday, April 24, at the Drake Pole Vault in the Mall at Jordan Creek Town Center.
When asked what she’s looking forward to most, she recalls the Hy-Vee salad bar last year. It was delicious, she remembers.
She doesn’t mention anything about breaking Relays pole-vaulting records — another title to add to her long, long list.