Pole vaulting deaths raise safety concerns
By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer
Kathryn Nishimura knew in seventh grade she wanted to pole vault.
Jeff Widener The Honolulu Advertiser
Pole vaulters, like Kamehameha School's Kehani Wong, are attracted to the sport because of the adrenaline rush they get while soaring through the air.
Jeff Widener The Honolulu Advertiser
"It seemed like so much fun," the 17-year-old senior recalled Friday, waiting for her turn to compete in the event at the Interscholastic League of Honolulu Championship Relays at Punahou School. "They'd go really high into the air and fall onto the pit. I just wanted to do it."
Nishimura is just one of thousands of teenagers across the country who have been seduced by the pole vault, a track and field event that has come under scrutiny since the recent deaths of competitors this year.
Last Monday, 17-year-old Samoa Fili II died after hitting his head on the pavement attempting a 12-foot vault during a high school meet in Wichita, Kan. In February, Penn State vaulter Kevin Dare died after a headfirst fall during a Big Ten meet. Also in February, 16-year-old vaulter Jesus Quesada died during practice at Clewiston High School in Florida.
These incidents have raised concerns about the safety of pole vaulting and the implementation of helmets during competitions.
But coaches and athletes argue that there are risks in every sport. Pole vaulting is no different in that regard. And in Hawai'i, where there is no record of any catastrophic injuries sustained in pole vaulting, the concern about safety has always been an issue.
In recent years the size of the pit, or cushioned landing area (16 feet square by 2 1/2 feet high for high school) has increased and the weight of the pole is now required to be compatible with the weight of the vaulter.
Those are the only rules the National Federation of High School Associations has implemented with regards to pole vaulting. Officials are currently discussing the use of helmets. (Idaho State recently made it mandatory for its vaulters to use helmets, similar to those used in skateboarding, after the recent deaths.)
Safety meetings scheduled
Dr. Spencer Chang, an orthopedic resident and pole vaulting coach, says it's premature to say that helmets would prevent injury.
"If you do it (pole vault) wrong, you could get injured," said Rick Foster, head state official for pole vaulting for the state of California and veteran coach and consultant. "But if you do almost anything wrong, you could hurt yourself."
Pole vaulting is potentially dangerous because of the distance of the falls. Vaulters can fall from a height ranging between 6 to 20 feet. Many injuries occur when the vaulter misses the pit and hits the surrounding pavement.
According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, there have been 15 fatal pole vaulting accidents at American high schools from 1983 to 2000. The center labeled pole vaulting as the most dangerous event of those it has researched.
"Athletes, in general, take risks, maybe in some sports more than others," said Dr. Spencer Chang, assistant medical counsel for the USA Track and Field's pole vault development staff and orthopedic resident at John A. Burns School of Medicine.
"Falling from 13 or 14 feet, there's always potential for injuries. It's taking a risk, but that's part of the sport, it's part of competition. The important thing is to realize the risks and try to minimize them."
Injuries are inevitable
"The problem is we don't have a good estimate of how many vaulters there are in the country," Chang said. "Some people would tell you pole vaulting is the most dangerous event. But a lot of other people would say otherwise."
In a recent national survey conducted by Chang of 230 pole vaulters, 33.5 percent sustained an injury requiring the medical attention of a trainer or physician that resulted in the vaulter missing at least one day of participation.
Of those who were injured, 41.1 percent suffered strains, sprains or ligament injuries. The ankle sprain was the most common injury, occurred when the vaulter lands feet first onto the landing pad.
Of the 19 vaulters who sustained severe injuries (fractures, dislocations and neck or head injuries), 11 had missed the landing pad.
"Pole vault injuries are inevitable," Chang wrote in his study. "However, these injuries may be minimized by updating requirements for pole vault facilities, the proper use of equipment, and adequate supervision and coaching of proper technique."
But these types of injuries can occur in almost every sport. Jay Hanamura has more injuries from playing basketball than from pole vaulting.
The 18-year-old senior at Punahou School has been vaulting since the eighth grade, with only bruises and minor cuts to note.
"I always think my jumps through very carefully before I take them," said Hanamura, who holds the ILH junior varsity record with a vault of 13 feet, 2 inches last year. "You have to get upside down and trust yourself getting into the pit. Because once you turn your body up, it's hard to turn it back the other way, and you might land on your head ... I have to trust in my ability to not get hurt."
Helmets may not help
Not everyone is convinced helmets are the best solution. Because there haven't been any studies done on the use of helmets in pole vaulting, the USA Track & Field has no official stand on its usage.
"And I don't know how helpful they would be," Chang said. "There is a theoretical risk of injury with helmets."
Foster, who also sells track and field equipment, said there's too much of a liability factor for manufacturers to market helmets safe enough for pole vaulting.
"There isn't a helmet manufacturer in the country that will say people could pole vault safely with their helmets," he said. "You could get hurt worse with helmets."
High school coaches here are very conscientious of safety, often stepping in to help athletes from other schools if they notice incorrect form or technique. They stress the importance of knowing the basics, from the approach to how to hold the pole correctly, before allowing the vaulter to catch air. And to minimize the risk of injury, they even teach the vaulters bailing strategies.
"(Safety) is the responsibility of all of us," said Joe Flores, Iolani's pole vault coach. "If we see something and there's no other coach around, we'll help them to vault safely."
Last year one of Iolani's junior varsity vaulters, Ian Nagata, suffered an ankle dislocation during a meet. His ankle slipped between the seams of the pit and "turned inside-out," said one of his teammates.
In a cast for two months and recovering for six, Nagata, now 16, returned to competition this season. Even after suffering a concussion a few weeks ago when he fell backward after incorrectly planting the pole into the box and landing head-first onto the runway.
"I'm not really concerned," said the sophomore from Palolo. "I like everything (about pole vaulting), especially the adrenaline. It's dangerous, but to me it's like anything else."
Not something parents like to hear.
Dona Hanaike of Honolulu tries to watch every meet her 18-year-old daughter Alexa Zen, a varsity athlete for Punahou School, competes in. But after her daughter landed awkwardly on her neck at a recent meet, Hanaike has been a nervous parent in the stands.
"I realize there's an element of danger to (the sport)," said Hanaike. "But the coaches take good steps to ensure their safety."
Women do it, too
She has supported her daughter's decision to continue to compete on the pole vault, despite the recent tragedies.
"I'm impressed that women can do this sport," Hanaike said. "I'm shocked and really proud of (my daughter) for doing something so different. She puts a lot of effort into this sport. It takes a lot of guts."
The thrill of the sport is exactly what lures teenagers, says Chang, current University of Hawai'i and former Iolani pole vault coach.
"You're running at top speed down the runway, you plant the fiberglass pole that will bend and kick you up in the air, and for a moment, you're flying," Chang said. "It's a rush. It's indescribable. And because of that element of fear and danger and risk, that's why a lot of vaulters like doing it."