By launching athletes sometimes well over 15 feet in the air, pole vaulting is debatably the most dangerous event in track and field. Since 1982, over 20 vaulters have died, according to research done by National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research (NCCSIR).
Many of the deaths result from athletes bouncing off the safety mats or missing them entirely: many athletes die on impact from spinal or brain injuries.
Samoa Filli II, a high school student from Kansas, died in 2002 after bouncing off a mat and hitting his head on the cement surrounding the pit during a meet. After three deaths in 2002, pole vault pits were required to be larger to prevent vaulters from bouncing off or missing the mats by both the NCAA and the National High School Federation.
“They made the mats larger in 2003, but mats are expensive; they had to give schools time to comply,” said Fred Mueller, the director for the NCSSIR at the University of North Carolina.
Some schools, particularly high schools, were unable to afford new or additional mats and were forced to eliminate the event, said Peter McGinnis.
McGinnis is the pole vault coach at SUNY Cortland and chair of the pole vault equipment sub-committee, which was formed after the 2002 deaths.
“The number of kids bouncing off the mats have decreased, but the number of kids falling back into the pole box has increased,” Mueller said.
Jan Johnson, who won the bronze medal in the pole vault at the 1972 Munich Olympics, runs a pole vault camp in California and chairs several committees for pole vault safety and agrees with Mueller that injuries have decreased.
“We’ve had, on legal-sized pits, one off-the-back-of-the pit injury and one off-the-side resulting in death,” Johnson said. “And we’ve had 18 in-the-box injuries.”
Of these, 10 or 11 were catastrophic head injuries, Johnson said.
The box is a one-and-a-half to two feet metal dip in the ground that stops the pole, which then allows for the bend in the pole that launches vaulters over the bar. There are sharp edges, which can paralyze athletes and provide a hard surface for brain and spine injuries. In 1970, Johnson watched a teammate fall into the box.
“[He] went straight up and came straight back down in the box, hit his head on the back of the box,” Johnson said. “He was in the hospital for two months, crushed skull and swelling on the brain. Fortunately he recovered.”
Approximately 75 percent of high school vaulters will land in the box at least once. Some vaulters land in the box as often as five or six times, Johnson said.
Johnson also wants to create a rule that vaulters are mandated to land in a designated safety zone, if they fail to do so then they will be disqualified. Similar rules are in place for throwing events, if the discus or shot is thrown outside of the zone, the throw is disqualifed as a foul.
“Anybody who has pole vaulted for any amount of time knows the box is the worst thing you can do,” Johnson said. “If you make a mistake in your run or takeoff and come up short, you’re in trouble.”
Currently, there is a box collar required for high school, but there is no standard set yet.
“Probably the more dangerous vaulters, or the vaulters that have to be more concerned with injuries, are college vaulters. College male vaulters,” McGinnis said. “Because they are going higher and some of them haven’t developed stable techniques.”
Kevin Dare, a former Penn State vaulter, died vaulting, along with three others, in 2002. His death was the result of falling backwards. He died instantly from a severed spinal cord injury while attempting his 15’7” vault, Johnson said.
“They move around and they haven’t been tested for any sort of performance capabilities, so many of them won’t do much,” McGinnis said. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) is working to develop a standard, which could be implemented by different overseeing organization like the National High School Federation.
“It’s got to reduce the impact forces tremendously, a lot,” McGinnis said. “The accelerations have to be below a certain level in order for the box collar to pass. If it’s above a certain level, mainly based on head injuries (it won’t pass).”
“If you’re concerned about the safety of your vaulters, you need to get a box collar that will something, that performs well,” McGinnis said. “You have a responsibility to provide the safest environment possible for your athletes. It costs less than a pole.”