Birth Of An Event: A History Of Female Vaulting in NY - Pt.1

In March of 1998, the female athletes at the Indoor State Championship competed in four field events, while the boys had five. One year later, after prodding of the state, those two numbers would become equal, as the lineup would add it's penultimate field event to the lineup for female competitors  --- the pole vault.

Introduced the previous June at the Outdoor State Meet, and already bringing a wave of newcomers to the event at the end of the millennium, the NY girls' PV was, as the first of the great champions says, "going to explode."

The story of how the NY girls earned their chance to step up to the bar nearly a century after the guys first took their attempts is a tale worth telling.  It's a tale of a determined group of athletes who fought against the restrictive rules and prejudices of their era, gained the support of a farsighted coaching cadre, and overcame injuries and setbacks to pioneer the way for the current generation. For an event that needs a certain warrior mentality, these pioneers were willing to take up the fight for their right to fly.

Breaking Ground With Michelle Kercado

Looking at her today, a strong devotee to the cross fit lifestyle, it would be easy to assume Michelle Kercado had simply been blessed with the right genetics at birth to become an exceptional athlete. While there might be some truth there, her story is not one without struggle. As a young child in Central Valley, nestled in the lower Hudson Valley area of New York, Kercado was a small kid who had a certain type of warrior spirit that drove her to show she could do all the physical activities that other kids could do. Her focus was especially on the very strenuous sport of gymnastics, and she loved the feeling of flying off the vaulting horse. "So many vaulters had a background in gymnastics," she says. "Both require a maximum amount of upper body strength."

The Transition To Track

Kercado had developed a lot of strength and speed by the time she entered junior high, and her gymnastics abilities brought her to the attention of a group of coaches at the local Monroe-Woodbury Central high school. The head girls outdoor track coach Jim Glover had his eye on Kercado since she was 10 years old after watching her power through 19 pull-ups in gym class, and longtime Indoor Coach Lou Hall was quick to get Kercado pulled into the Crusaders' track scene as soon as possible. Hall saw that Kercado might be a perfect fit for an event that by 1996 was starting to gain some traction for American HS girls, and he introduced her to Jumps Coach Hugh Cauthers, who would help engineer Kercado's rise to the top of the national PV ranks.

Cauthers had been the boys' jumps coach for Monroe-Woodbury for two decades before Kercado entered the PV scene. As director of the computer services at MW, he had a serious analytical approach to testing out different training methods for improving PV performance. He was at the time helping to boost senior Michael Uhulsky's rise to the NY Indoor and Outdoor State Championship in 1997, and at MW in the 1990s there was the perfect marriage of means and opportunity to launch the start of girls PV in NY.

The Landscape Of The Time

The late 1990s was not actually when NY girls first began attacking the PV bar. MW itself had been letting girls try it out since at least the 1980s, and even kept a school record for the girls in the event. Girls had been entering PV competitions with the boys at least in the eastern part of the state in some meets for a few years, but there was a nasty catch to the situation. Under state rules, if a girl competed in a "boys'" event, she was not allowed to compete in any of the girls' events for the day. So especially if you were an important member of a relay team, you had a cruel choice to make.

At the time, Pole Vault was a specialized event that even for the boys was always running up against a lack of facilities, equipment, and event-specific coaching instruction. For the girls', the situation was even worse. With no sanctioned competition at the State or local level, and no all-valuable team points to be scored, much of the training priority and reserved mat time was given to the boys. It led to the standard Catch-22. Some state officials had argued that the level of girls PV was not good enough to include it as a standard event, but that was a chicken-and-egg situation since you cannot become proficient in an event if you are not given the resources -- or the encouragement.

But a swell of interest was rising, at all levels of the sport.

When Kercado joined the growing ranks of NY girls PVers as a freshman at MW, the cult of the high-flying females was beginning to grow. Women's pole vault for the Olympics had passed through its demonstration stages and was to be included for the first time for Sydney in 2000. American Pro Vaulter Stacy Dragila had netted her first world title indoors in 1997 and was on her way to claiming the first Olympic Gold in 2000, and she was a huge role model for high school girls at the time. Most of the country at the prep level had a similar sporadic adoption of the event, with the West Coast athletes just starting to make their in-roads, but the need to be part of the action was definitely on the minds of some of the more progressive coaches in places like Monroe-Woodbury and New Rochelle.

Kercado Finds A Knack For The Event Early

At MW, Coach Cauthers used all the lessons he had learned from coaching boys for twenty years and added some new twists for his first top-level female recruit. Kercado meanwhile was able to use her gymnastics experience to get a head start on going higher in the Pole Vault than any other locals at the time. Monroe-Woodbury not only had the facilities and coaching to boost her technique, but Kercado had a strong group of the Crusaders' PV guys to hang with and learn from. Still, poles made for girls, especially ones for shorter stature like Kercado, were hard to come by, and she was often using poles rated at 1 1/2 times her weight level as she pushed higher in the years ahead.

By 1997 in her sophomore year, Kercado was ringing up some successes in the meets that she jumped at, including a 10-3 vault in an exhibition match that would rank her at 5th in the nation. In June of that year, she went down to the National Scholastic Outdoor Championship in Greensboro NC and placed 6th with a jump of 9-6.25, while also getting a look at the technique of the top two eastern US vaulters from Weston MA, Melissa Feinstein and Samantha Shepard. At Indoor Nationals of her junior year in 1998, she led the group of six NY vaulters there, again at 9-6.25 for 12th place overall.

The Fight To Make It Official

Enough was enough, Kercado thought. If she was going to compete, she would need the same exposure to the event that boys were receiving.

The fateful 1998 Outdoor T&F Season opened with a lawsuit that would gain attention throughout the nation. Three quarters of the way through her junior season, Kercado had been looking at colleges and realized that she was at a big disadvantage versus the boys and girls from the other states that included the PV for both genders. Rather than shrug her shoulders and say that's just the way it is, she decided to sue. She wasn't the first to launch a suit, either at the school or for the event. In the 1960s, a MW girls tennis player had successfully won a suit to play on the guys' team when there was no girls squad, and female pole vaulters in other states had succeeded in getting spots in their state championships by suing.

Backed by Coach Cauthers and a group of legal advisers, Kercado sued as a minor with her mother serving as the senior plaintiff, filing a lawsuit on April 5th to require NY state to provide equal opportunity for female T&F athletes under the statutes of Title IX. On April 17th, the Kercado team went to Albany for opening discussions with NY state sports officials about the issues in the brief.

The Kercado lawsuit never went to trial for one simple reason: money. Though state officials believed they could win the case in the long run, it would have been costly. After deliberations, the state committees agreed that the simplest solution to avoid a lawsuit that would not only have been expensive and exposed the state to scathing attention in newspapers across the nation was to agree to quickly add PV as a sixth field event for the girls at Outdoor States on equal footing with the shot put, discus, high jump, long jump, and triple jump, the last of which had been added for the girls in 1986. The battle for NY girls PV was won.

From The Courtroom To The Runway

While the legal roadblocks had been lifted, the reality was that a transition was now slated to happen - implemented already halfway through the first season of its introduction. The scramble to get everything set up for the first States girls PV was a lot of work, as there was no pre-existing structure in place for the competitions that would select the athletes that would make the trip to the host site, Cicero-North Syracuse.

Most of the Sections were able to get the PV added to their local championships or just include their top-ranked athletes to make up the States contingents, however, for many areas in the western part of the State, no Girls had ever attempted the event before. State officials had hoped to do a full year of testing out the event for the girls, and there were questions among some of them as to whether girls had the strength to do the PV, whether it was too dangerous for them, and whether they would as one sectional head stated, "make a mockery of the event" at States. "What if Kercado has a bad day and the winning height winds up being only 6 feet? We could look pretty silly then." That was not an unusual stance at the time, especially with limited exposure to some of the talent that had only recently found a National footing downstate. There was no internet to pass along the information about a rising tide of talent coming towards the event.

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As it turned out, there was no need to worry about the first NY States girls PV being a farce. Kercado was indeed the leader in the state after placing 4th at the Penn Relays at 10-2, but many dozens of NY girls could do better than 6 feet, and in fact fifteen would scale 7-feet, and eight would pass 8-feet at the 1998 Outdoor State Meet, even on short notice about the opportunity. There were three separate Class competitions at States, and Kercado was the winner of Class A at 10-6. But the top height was achieved in the Class B contest by Newark senior Jill Starkenburg of Section 5 in the west at 11-0. The heights did the girls proud, and though everything happened late for Starkenburg in her HS career, she would go on to have a strong few years in the PV for the University of South Dakota.

The season was not over for either Kercado or Starkenburg, as they were intent on taking their States' success on to the national stage. At NSOC Nationals, Kercado battled at the top with a new PR of 11-1.75 to take 5th place, and Starkenburg was 15th with a 10-2 best. Kercado then wrapped up an eventful and triumphant junior year by placing 5th with still a new PR of 12-1.5 at US Juniors among the 19-and-ups in Edwardsville, IL.

A Quick Rise In 1999

With the PV successfully incorporated into NY's T&F world, Kercado set herself on some big goals for her 1999 senior season while throughout the state, athletes young and old started to figure out whether they had the right substance and resources for successful vaulting. In Kercado's neck of the woods at nearby Washingtonville, Lindsay Rosales set Indoor and Outdoor 8th Grade State Records in 1999 with a best of 9-10.25. Some older athletes dived in likely with college scholarship opportunities as a spur.

Kercado's success as a junior got her invited out to Pocatello ID for the Simplot Games in February of 1999, a gathering of elite athletes. The big trip was well worth it as she set a Meet and National HS Indoor Record of 12-6.25. She also earned wins at 12-0 at the Yale Track Classic and at 11-6 for the inaugural Manhattan College Invite at the Armory. Her first and only Indoor State Championship on February 27th at the Syracuse Carrier Dome was one she tries to forget, however. Though she soared 2 feet higher than any other competitor at 11-6, a rival coach got her disqualified for wearing spandex shorts in an era when the dress code for girls was still evolving from the primordial era and and conduct in the T&F arena was still a war zone for some of the teams. Two weeks later at NSIC Nationals, Kercado wrapped up her indoor season with an 11-11 vault for 3rd place.

Outdoor season was the time that the PV really started to explode for the NY girls, and Kercado was in good company. In May at the Loucks Games she set a meet record when she cleared 12-6.25, and she took a trip down to Florida at the end of May to take the win at the big Golden South meet at 12-0. She picked up a second States Class A title at what was for her a rather pedestrian 10-3 height and had Arlington's Deven Fister and Shenendehowa's Jamie Stitt on her heels at 10-0, while again the top vault of the meet came in Class B as a new name, Amy Linnen of Mt. Sinai, was starting to emerge in the event. 

A week after States, Kercado went out to CA for the Golden West meet and set her HS PR of 12-9.5 for a meet record, and she might have topped 13-0 for the first time in history by a Female Prep Athelte, except for an incorrectly set standard that screwed up her best attempt at the height on the first try. Along with the win, she received the 1999 Maree Rodebaugh Award for Most Inspirational Athlete. Her HS career ended with an 11-4.75 vault for 13th at US Juniors in Denton, TX.

Kercado and Cauthers' Bequest to the Pole Vault

After graduation from Monroe-Woodbury, Kercado moved on to Columbia University, while Cauthers was just beginning a whole new era in the Lower Hudson PV mentorship, now with both the guys and girls to work with. Kercado's college action was limited a bit by physical ailments that began to plague her. She still set PV records for the Lions both indoors at 12-2.75 and outdoors at 12-1.5, but reaching the heights she got to in HS became increasingly harder. Situated in NY, she was aware of the big growth in the girls' HS PV scene in the early 2000s that got a boost from Stacy Dragila's victory in first Olympic competition in 2000.

After graduating from Columbia, Kercado spent her early working career immersed in the molecular biology field.

After visits to various medical specialists seeking relief for painful neck and spine ailments, she finally hit upon the solution through acupuncture treatments. In fact, she was able to get back into competitive sports action not just in the pole vault but in cross-fitness training involving weightlifting, gymnastics, and endurance events. Joining the Team Dynamix squad in Queens, she was a mainstay on the team for a number of years in the early 2010s. But she also had some more time for the PV, again heading up to her old stomping grounds to help Coach Cauthers develop the next generation of high flyers.

Cauthers retired from MW early in the 2000s and joined with his old friend Tim St. Lawrence of Warwick Valley HS to start the Hudson Valley Flying Circus in 2005, out of an old dairy barn in Warwick. Numerous state and national champions have come out of the PV facility's seasonal and summer programs, competing not only for NY but other states such as CT, MA, NJ, and PA. In the mid 2010s, Kercado joined with ex-Washingtonville state champion Stephanie Duffy to add a little more female perspective to the elite coaching staff at the barn. Arlington's Male State Record Holder and National Champ Jordan Yamoah was a Barn vaulter about a decade ago, and Averill Park's Alana Carroll and Warwick Valley's Kaeli Thompson both won state and national titles and have kept the female tradition of the event alive more recently.

Pioneering change never left Kercado, as she became Michelle Vlahakis after marrying her husband Johnny in 2014, alongside leaving her former career and getting certification to become a sports acupuncturist for treatment of pain, and heading out to the West Coast during the last year to move her practice to San Diego.

An Enduring Legacy

So what is the legacy that Kercado-Vlahakis feels she has left to NY T&F? She is aware that PV would eventually have come to the NY girls, and as a Crusader pioneer, she was not aware of herself as a crusading forerunner to a big movement of today's sports world. She was simply an athlete who felt she was not being given a fair shake and had a number of supportive coaches and parents around her who were willing to help her fight to speed up the process of equality in NY athletics.

"Pole vault was something that was going to explode," she recalls two decades later, proud of the opportunities she helped to open up for one half of T&F athletes. She battled through a lot of tough stuff to prove she had the right stuff, and her early successes were a big rebuke to the naysayers in the state who felt that girls weren't cut out for the PV. As she recalls it today, that ecstatic feeling of soaring upward and curling over the bar is an experience that should be open to anyone who dares to give it a go.

After 1998, that opening was there for all.

- - Stories of the Time - -

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Ithaca Journal - Jun 8th, 1998

Democrat & Chronicle - May 8th, 1998