Pole Position

5 minute read
Joel Stein

It’s likely that i’m an awful athlete because of genetics, laziness and a complete lack of interest in athletics. But it’s also possible that I’ve just never found my sport. For all I know, I might be a natural at luge, buzkashi or any of the sports involving balls. So I decided to go to the Olympic training center in Chula Vista, Calif., to give pole-vaulting a shot. It looked like it might not require too much skill, assuming the pole has batteries and works like other carnival rides.

Having neither a pole nor anything to vault over, I persuaded Brad Walker, a star of the U.S. team, to train me. Brad, 31, holds the U.S. record and made the fourth highest outdoor vault ever in the world, at 6.04 m (604 cm). I met him at the center of a track where nearly naked, superhot women from some Nordic country ran sprints and even better-looking, nearly nakeder guys and women chatted as they stretched. They looked like the kind of beautiful, active people who, if commercials are at all accurate, have herpes.

Brad started our training by asking a string of questions to determine if this was indeed the sport for me: Have you ever jumped out of an airplane? Do you have a motorcycle? Do you get a lot of speeding tickets? What I was learning is that one important attribute of a pole vaulter is that he enjoys emasculating other men. After looking me over, he said, “We’re going to have our work cut out for us.” I mumbled something about how if driving a Ferrari is overcompensating, I can’t imagine how small your penis must be if you need to run in front of crowds holding a giant pole.

Brad is different from me in a lot of ways, most of which became obvious when he took off his shirt. Also, when he was wearing a shirt. Brad doesn’t eat gluten, dairy products or refined sugar. On his flight to Europe, he’ll be taping electrodes from an electrical muscle-stimulation kit to his legs, poking himself with acupuncture needles and doing squats by the bathroom. This will be especially awkward if his flight is anything like my past two, since the woman next to him will be reading Fifty Shades of Grey.

I picked up Brad’s smallest pole, which he made me hold in a really unnatural way, with my wrists facing down. Not only was it superheavy; it didn’t bend at all. Apparently, if you run fast enough, plant it into a metal box and transfer all your horizontal force into vertical force, this stiff fiberglass pole will bend and launch you two stories into the air and onto a soft mat. But if you don’t do it right, it will launch you forward, and you will fall down into that metal pit, sometimes on your head. People die pole-vaulting. Others injure their testicles in a manner so horrific that they get hundreds of thousands of YouTube views.

I took a few steps with the pole, planted it in the box and yelled a word I can’t print here, since it wasn’t so much a word as a sound of complete pain. Ramming a pole into a metal wall sucks in a way that explains why so few people ram poles into metal walls. Brad started experiencing back pain in 2006 but says, “There was nothing I could pinpoint it to.” I’m not a doctor, but I’m going to pinpoint it to pole-vaulting. He took time off after having surgery on a ruptured disk.

After setting an elastic rope at 6 ft.–the lowest it will go–Brad taught me how to run with the pole, put my weight on my left foot, plant my pole and hoist myself over the rope. It turns out there are many ways to tangle a rope, a pole and your testicles. I never cleared that rope, though I got some cool bruises on my elbow that are called vaulter burns, a term coined by TIME in July 2012.

Pole-vaulting isn’t the only sport I’ve attempted just once: I was a hockey goalie for the New York Islanders for a practice, and I once ate a lot of pie without my hands, though that wasn’t technically a competition since I was alone, standing by the refrigerator. But pole-vaulting is by far the most difficult. If everyone could try it, we’d all have a lot more appreciation for both the sport and the problems with our health care system. And for Brad Walker. To dedicate yourself to perfection at something almost no one understands just for your own sense of fulfillment is so counter to our lazy, fame-obsessed culture that I think there’s a great reality show in it. I’ve sent out a few feelers to producers. I’m guessing we’ll see Men with Huge Poles on Spike TV by spring.

TO WATCH JOEL VAULT, GO TO time.com/polevault

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