Birth Of An Event: A History Of Female Vaulting in NY - Pt.2

During the spring of 1998, in her sophomore season while watching a track-and-field meet at Mount Sinai HS, Amy Linnen noticed that something was missing.

One of the events going on had no girls competing in it. That would be the pole vault. When she asked one of the vaulter guys in her home room why there were no girls over in this boys' club, he just shrugged and said maybe they weren't strong enough. That answer made no sense to a top gymnast like Linnen, who couldn't understand why a strong girl like her shouldn't be out there in the PV action too.

Now if the question had been about long distance races like the mile and two mile that girls had mainly been barred from three decades before during the club-and-AAU-meets-only era for women, Linnen wouldn't have been as vexed, because she wasn't a big fan of long hard runs. "I hate running," she says, though she really means anything further than a sprint distance. But she did have speed for a runway charge, and in the PV she saw a lot possibilities for herself.

What Linnen didn't know was that while she was turning an eye to the PV action, a lawsuit filed by Monroe-Woodbury athlete Michelle Kercado and her coach Hugh Cauthers was going to force New York State to include the event in the standard offerings for girls at T&F meets.

By June, the first PV competitions in three Class A-B-C groups were being held at States for the girls, and Kercado won the A group at 10-6 and Jill Starkenburg of Newark won Class B at 11-0. It had been a big scramble to get everything set up for the girls PV in barely over a month, and though the Long Island Sections for Linnen's Suffolk County 11 and Nassau County Section 8 were not part of the action, the word about girls' PV was now out.

Not Her First Challenge

One of the first to take up the challenge on Long Island was Linnen. An athletic 5-10-maybe-11, Linnen like many of the early PVers spent almost her whole early life doing gymnastics, and flying through the air off the vault horse or on the mat or the high bars was a natural mode of existence for her. Though she had entered high school intent on taking her talents as an All-State gymnast on to college, by the middle of her years at Mt. Sinai, Linnen had grown a lot. "Being almost six feet tall for a gymnast is very challenging," she said. It also led to physical issues that made her feel like her body was breaking down. And to a great extent, it was amazing that Linnen was able to perform any type of physical activity.

As an 11-year-old, Linnen had suffered an ankle injury that led to a staph infection that ate away much of the bone in her right leg before it was diagnosed. A series of surgeries saved the leg, but the growth plate in her left leg needed to be operated on to keep both legs at a reasonably close 1/2 inch difference. She needed special orthotic shoes in athletic activities, and she wouldn't quite get to be 6 feet tall. But she was tall enough so that gymnastics was just beginning to put too much pressure on her physique. Track and field awaited as her new home.

Diving Right In

Her boyfriend at the time just happened to be a PVer at around 12-6 to 13-0, and when she asked how she could also learn to do it since it wasn't offered to girls at her school, he pointed her toward a sports camp up near Albany where the retired track coach Don Hood Sr. of Abilene Christian University was showing the next generation of PVers how to fly. Linnen enrolled and spent three days learning the basics of the event while also bonding with a group of enthusiastic girls who were all there to upgrade their 1998 performances or like Linnen get their intro to PV. She remembers getting up to 8 1/2 to 9 feet by the end of camp, and she was on her way knowing "I had a natural gift for this."

When Linnen got home she also started getting help from another source, a boy friend who was happy to work with her on her vaulting skills. Through the rest of the summer and onward to spring track season she worked on her skills, and at the beginning of the season her boyfriend said the boys team's track coach Gary Short would love to meet her because, as he said, "You could beat half the boys on the team."

Within a year, Linnen would be beating all the boys on the team and all but a dozen in the entire state.

Making The Battle For Inclusion Local

Pulled on to the Mustangs track team and practicing the high hurdles and high jump for the girls team, training with the boys in the pole vault under Coach Short, Linnen began to soar very quickly. The right equipment is vital for the pole vault, and she got a Lady Rocket 13' pole (sort of like Harry Potter's Nimbus 2000) for her PV flying tours. Eventually to reach higher spheres she would need to switch over to one of the boys 14' or 14'6" poles that would have been rated at around 155, well over her certified weight.

But though Linnen started off as part of the boys team in the PV in 1999, she was eventually told she had to just be with the girls on a Mt. Sinai team that also included Bill Dwyer and Ed Nook as coaches. Despite it all, Linnen began to make her mark in T&F, breaking the school's 100H record in her first meet even though she had no real idea how to clear a hurdle. 

But again there was an issue with PV because the Long Island meets still didn't have any competitions for the girls. Mt. Sinai got into action for Linnen and started petitioning their Section 11 T&F representatives to catch up to the rest of the state and get the event on the dockets for the girls at the Suffolk County meet, and by May the deal had been worked out.

"The highlight of my life in pole vaulting was to start women's pole vault in our county," she says. But she also had another goal very much on her mind. "I wanted to beat the boys,"  and with vault of 11-0 at County, she likely dispatched of most of them.

Linnen's Lady Rocket really blasted off at States at Cicero-North Syracuse as she skied to a 12-0 for the top height and second best ever in NY behind only MW's Kercado, who won the Class A competition at a more leisurely 10-3. Linnen won her B title by a whopping 2 1/2 feet, and she also had a busy day with a 3rd place in the Class B 100H.

The first big year for Linnen ended at Foot Locker Nationals in Raleigh NC with a 6th place at 10-10 on the same day that Kercado was pushing her NY record up to 12-9.5 at the Golden West meet in CA. Though the height was not Linnen's best on the year, getting to compete with many of the top vaulters in the nation such as the champ Samantha Shepard of Weston MA was a table-setter for a huge senior year.

By the end of her second year in track, Linnen would be looking up to no one and just looking down at the cross bar.

A Rapid Rise Right To The Olympic Trials

Linnen began her senior year at Mt. Sinai as now the best vaulter in the state and with a focus on what it might take to become the top vaulter in the nation. The experiences of her meteoric junior year had insured that she would be a mainstay at the biggest meets around.

Her year also began in the indoor season in the waning days of 20th century as she opened up with a 12-0 vault for a win at the Bishop Loughlin Classic. Making it safely past Y2K, Linnen then triumphed at the Yale Track Classic with a 12-6 that almost equaled Kercado's national indoor mark of 12.6.25 from her senior year in 1999. The national record came on March 1st at Eastern States at the Armory with a 12-10 clearance. A week later she won the States title by a foot with a vault of 11-0, and she added a 4th in the 55H hurdles. Then while some of the nation's top vaulters headed to the Armory for the New Balance Nationals, Linnen traveled out to Bloomington IN for even better action at Nike Indoor Nationals. Along with Emily Tharpe and Kimberly Stuyvesant of PA schools, she cleared 12-4.75 and ended up 2nd to Tharpe on the fewer misses score.

On To Outdoors

By the outdoor season of her senior year, Linnen was dominating the PV at most of her meets, and she often won at a solid enough height and then would have the bar raised way up for an attempt at a sky-high 13+ mark. Besides trying to marshal all her energy for a new PR, the strategy also focused on another goal, the US Olympic Trials. Though actually winning a spot on the Olympic team for a HSer like Linnen was an exceedingly long shot, a trip to the trials if she could hit the 13-0.25 qualifier was a reward in itself.

In an early meet at Penn Relays, Linnen cleared 12-2 to win the meet and then had the bar raised almost a foot for three misses at 13-1. She won the Loucks Games at 12-6, and she swept the high jump, 100H, and PV at the Suffolk County meet. Her winning height at County was 11-6, but in continued practice attempts after the meet she proved to herself that she could top 13. At States she was tied for the lead at 10-0 on first-day prelims, and then sewed up another championship by 15 inches at 12-0 in the new non-Class Open format for the state championship.

Then it was on to Foot Locker Nationals. Linnen says she was confident going down to Raleigh knowing that she had done 13 feet in practice, but she was facing Stacie Manuel of Willmar MN who had set a national mark of 13-4 in mid-May. Linnen was looking for a state record, a national championship, and an Olympic Trials qualifier height, and she got all three. Both she and Manuel made 12-6.5, but when the bar was then raised to the Olympics mark of 13-0.25, only Linnen rose to the challenge. After missing her first attempt by a small amount, she looked over at her coach and signaled, "I've got this." A dream season for Linnen was ending in a dream come true, though since she had only been doing this PV thing for for two years, it was a recent dream transferred over from the gymnastics aspirations of earlier years.

In mid-July, Linnen, along with fellow HS qualifiers Manuel and Shepard, got the thrill of attending the US Olympic Trials in Sacramento CA. Stacy Dragila was already a renowned world champion and would lead the field at Trials with a 15-2.25 vault, and with Kellie Suttle and Melissa Mueller she would go on to the Sydney Olympics and win the first women's PV gold medal. Being in there with America's top women vaulters was a fantastic experience for Linnen and her fellow HS athletes even though none managed to clear the opening 13-2-25 height. "Competing with these wonderful women and being in the same arena with them was such an honor," says Linnen. "They became my best friends. To be part of history at the first Olympic trials was just awesome."

National Championships at Another Level

Like a lot of athletes who go through the NY winters, the lure of a college experience in a nice warm place was inviting, especially for an athlete who wants to spend her time flying over a bar 365 days of the year. For the highly recruited Linnen, that place was University of Arizona in Tucson. She would be making a big impact by her freshman year when she set new PRs and took 5th at both the indoor and outdoor NCAA D1 championships, hitting 13-9.25 in March. But sophomore season was the big breakout for her as the 14 foot barrier was shattered. At the NCAA indoor championship, she set a Collegiate Record at 14-10.25 that would last for 12 years. She also set a school record outdoors with a PR of 14-1.75 to win the PAC championship.

In her sophomore year at Arizona in 2003, Linnen was jumping consistently in the 13 foot range but did not reach the heights she had gone to the year before, until hitting a college US #1 at the indoor PAC championshp at 14-4.75. She was back at 13-7.25 for the D1 indoors, however, and placed 11th at D1 outdoors. During that July she got a boost when she reached her all-time best outdoors in an elite-invites meet at Atascadera CA, going to 14-5.25 to set an all-time school record. But it would be her last record for the Wildcats, as her PV coach Tom Hays left for the University of Kansas, and Linnen took what would have been her senior 2004 college season off after a torn triceps while also focusing on a bid for an Olympics berth. After hitting the qualifier, she went to her second Trials and this time jumped 13-9.25 in prelims to go on to finals. That would be as high as she would go, however, and Dragila wrapped up her second Trials win at 15-7.

Deciding to transfer to Kansas after 3 1/2 semesters for her final year of college eligibility, Linnen set her sights on returning to the top in 2005. Working back to form, she won the Big 12 indoor championship at 13-9.25 and then leaped 14-1.25 to win her second D1 national championship. During the outdoor season she finished 1st in the Midwest Regional championship at 13-11.75. She again hit 14-1.25 at the D1 outdoor championship as one of four vaulters at that top height, but this time it earned her a 3rd place on misses. She finished up her 2005 season with a 9th place at USATF Nationals.

After graduating from Kansas in 2006 with a degree in communications, Linnen took some time away from PV to do a lot of crazy stuff like cliff diving and then spent two years working as a surfing instructor in Hawaii while also making one last training run to get the qualifier for a final  Olympic Trials in 2008. This time despite the effort and sacrifice, there would no trip to Trials. She then spent two years at SUNY Cortland finishing a bachelor of sciences degree in physical education she had started at Arizona. Her stints as an assistant coach had begun while at Kansas, and she continued in that role wherever she went.

So obviously the place to go for Linnen in 2009 was to the place where it all started for a "Welcome Back, Kotter" position in the Mt. Sinai middle school physical education department, and as an assistant coach to Bill Dwyer on the track team. Her fame as a national champion in high school and college and her visits to the Olympic Trials are well known to the current generation of Mustang tracksters, many of whom she has helped to develop into champions. She apparently is known for another thing now too, as she has earned the nickname "Cartwheels," at least at the school's charity basketball games. For an ex-gymnast, that's likely a natural.

While back at Mt. Sinai, Linnen furthered her education at Stony Brook, getting her masters degree in health with a focus on sports psychology. Her thesis was on the PTSD syndrome of athletes like herself who fall into depression once their sports careers are ended and they have to regroup for a new future. Linnen found a measure of relief by competing in a number of different athletic competitions. She was invited to be part for of a pole vault team called Wonder Women for the Spartan Ultimate Team Challenge show on NBC.

More recently, Linnen has added a Youtube health and fitness channel for both kids and adults on training for guide dogs and instruction in healthful cooking alternatives to store-bought meals with her favorite cuisine such as homemade mac-and-cheese and carrot cakes, which are definitely a must for any right-minded T&F athlete.The channel also includes workouts and challenge exercisies. Check it out here.

So what does Linnen feel is her legacy as the one who got it all going on Long Island and then helped to propel NY to the top of the HS pole vaulting scene?

"It was a great time for the history of the sport," she says, "and the history of New York and women in sports. Only a few of us know what was going on at that time, and we were right there and seeing it all go on and evolve in front of us. It was really cool to be part of that generation."

"I don't even know if we knew what we were doing. It was just a new opportunity for girls. I am proud of myself for being passionate and not letting anything get in the way of participating in this great event. I hope that my legacy is remembered and inspires others to fight for their dreams."

The NY girls would seize the opportunity and run with it to the great heights of today, though Linnen can be proud that a lot of her marks are still at the top of the list at her schools (Mt. Sinai, Arizona, Kansas) and in Section 11 where she pioneered the way in 1999, along with inductions into the Athletic Hall of Fame at the two NCAA D1 schools. Without the courage and determination of athletes like Linnen, we would not be raising the bar to the heights we see today.