April 24, 2009
CALEDONIA -- Stephanie Gonzalez started pole vaulting in less than ideal circumstances.
The then-Caledonia High School sophomore ran on grass and fell into a pole vault pit made up of mattresses.
She probably still has the scrapes on her legs from the experience.
"They were old mattresses, so I cut my leg up pretty good sometimes," said Gonzalez, who cleared 6 feet when she started the event.
The CHS track and field team has moved up in the world a little since 2007. The pole vaulters now have asphalt to run on and a pair of pit mats that were scrounged from Oxford High to land on.
Even though the equipment and conditions are less than perfect, Gonzalez and Caitlin Gilbreath have persevered.
In fact, they finished first and second last week in the pole vault to advance to the Class 4A Regional meet, which will be Saturday at Pearl High School.
Gonzalez, who also is a standout swimmer, has a personal-best mark of 7 feet, 6 inches in the pole vault, while Gilbreath has cleared 7-0 in practice at Caledonia High.
Caledonia High coach James Reed said those efforts might be good enough to help the girls qualify for the Class 4A North Half meet, but he would like to see them get up to 8-0 to improve their chances.
That Gonzalez and Gilbreath, the school''s first girls pole vaulters, are still competing is an accomplishment given their situation.
The asphalt the pole vaulters use for their approach was paid for by the CHS Booster Club, but it has dips and isn''t level.
Caledonia also uses a high jump bar, which is heavier than a typical pole vault bar, and uses a high jump standard, which can''t be adjusted to raise and lower the bar or to adjust the horizontal position of the bar.
Gonzalez and Gilbreath only recently got a new pole to practice their event. The pole, which also was paid for by the CHS Booster Club, allowed Gilbreath to give up using an old pole that was used by boys.
Reed said that is only the beginning.
"We have mats that were re-worked from Oxford High School," Reed said. "We have nothing new. Everything we have borrowed or have been given or have taken from the trash collection."
Reed said the big mats that pole vaulters land in were about to be hauled off. He asked the Oxford High coach if Caledonia High could get the mats. A week later, the mats weren''t picked up and they became CHS property.
The recovered mats have now taken the place of the old mattresses that used to scar Gonzalez''s legs when she landed.
"They are mentally tough," Reed said. "They are athletes. They are going to do what they have to do to get the job done. I would rather have someone with that mentality instead of a super athlete who is looking for the easy way out. Our kids understand that they''re fighting an uphill battle all of the time to run track."
Reed''s comments describe the runway leading to the pole vault pit.
Despite all of the adversity Gonzalez, Gilbreath, and their track and field teammates have to endure, they still won the Class 4A-District 4 title last week.
On Saturday, they hope to take another step and challenge Pearl for a regional title.
Gonzalez''s attitude reveals why she has been successful. She said she was one of the few athletes on the track and field team who wasn''t scared to attempt the pole vault when Reed asked. She said you need that mind-set if you are going to compete in an event that can be treacherous if not done properly.
"It is better to go over the bar than land on the cement," Gonzalez said. "It is not going to hurt that bad if you land on the cement. It is going to hurt for a minute."
Gonzalez has improved her marks by about a foot since last season.
Gilbreath has only pole vaulted for two weeks. She also qualified for regionals in the 300 hurdles after competing in it only twice after she finished with the softball team.
"I love it. It is the most fun thing to do for track for me" Gilbreath said.
Reed is confident he will find more pole vaulters after Gonzalez and Gilbreath graduate next month. He said the bottom line from year to year is scoring points, especially in events where other teams might not have competitors.
Gonzalez and Gilbreath have done their part to try to convince their teammates to take up pole vaulter. They said teammates have told them they want to do it but won''t follow through once they get a pole in their hands and have to try to clear the bar.
They hope their example convinces others to take up the sport and to go on to clear higher heights.
For as long as their season continues, Gonzalez and Gilbreath will continue to enjoy their "special" status.
"It takes a special person to be a pole vaulter with good facilities," Reed said. "It takes a real special person to be a pole vaulter at Caledonia."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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