Upon learning that a pole-vaulter from Division III Grinnell College in Iowa had died this week from injuries sustained last Friday at the Midwest Conference track and field meet, I made four phone calls before someone could tell me the dimensions of the pit that sophomore Robert Yin had fatally missed to one side. This morning, an attorney for Illinois College, the meet host, called with the numbers: 24 feet deep by 21 feet, 6 inches wide.
Olympic medalist Jan Johnson, a three-time NCAA champion and USA Track and Field's pole-vault safety chair since 1995, was among those who couldn't tell me the exact dimensions of the Illinois College pit when I reached him yesterday, but having obtained photos of the pit in question from its manufacturer, he assured me that it was "big enough," meaning it met NCAA standards for depth (16 feet, 5 inches) and width (19 feet, 8 inches). When I asked him how any pit could be considered big enough if it allows a vaulter, as was the case with Yin, to only graze the side of the pit before landing on his back and slamming his head, Johnson noted that NCAA rules, unlike those applied to high school pole-vaulting, make no mention of padding hard surfaces around the pit. This extra safety measure typically takes the form of two-inch-thick high-density foam extending four feet from the pit's edges.
But Johnson, who runs several pole-vault camps as director of Sky Jumpers Vertical Sports Club in Atascadero, Calif., also shared with me this item from his own intelligence gathering: Yin's personal-best height was 11 feet, which Johnson says put him at or near beginner status. "It's very unusual for a man to be jumping only 11 feet in college," Johnson says. "If pole-vaulters are going to the side a lot, like a lot of beginners do, and they continue to raise their grip, they can go off the side of any pit."
Yin was coached at Grinnell by Will Freeman, who like Johnson was an elite pole-vaulter in the 1970s. "The bottom line is we in pole-vaulting still have to get rid of hard surfaces, and that includes the ones in the plant box," Johnson says.
I'm thinking maybe it's time the NCAA hardened its rules on this point, so that the odds of softer landings are raised and the risk of such tragedy is lowered.