Atholton pole-vaulting trio provide lifts for one another

February 06, 1994|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,Sun Staff Writer

Atholton's pole vaulters could not be a more diverse trio.

Omar El Sawi commands top billing as the Howard County record holder, two-time county indoor champ and defending Class 3A state indoor champ. The senior has qualified for the National High School Indoor Track Championships next month in Syracuse, N.Y.

The No. 2 man is Ed LeBard, sometime class clown. The most athletic of the three, the junior also plays linebacker for the Raiders football team. LeBard is deaf, the result of a bout with malaria when he was an infant living in Africa.

Then, there's Josh Potocko, star of Atholton musical theater and vice president of student government. The 3.8 GPA student is headed for the Naval Academy, the first step toward his goal of becoming an astronaut.

When they practice and compete, however, these three tune in on the same frequency.

At Wednesday's Howard County Indoor Track Championships at the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore, they all vaulted into the ,, top four. El Sawi won with a vault of 13 feet. LeBard was third at 12-0, with Potocko fourth at 11-6.

When they talk about Wednesday's championships, El Sawi provides the drama, LeBard the comic relief and Potocko the analysis.

El Sawi went after the state record of 14-3. Nobody wanted him to break it more than his two teammates.

"I know he'll break the record, then I'll get it next year," said a grinning LeBard through an interpreter.

But El Sawi would not get the record Wednesday. First, he cleared 12-6, then 13-0, good enough to win the title. Next, he moved the bar up to 14-4.

On his first attempt at the record, El Sawi hit the bar on the way up. On the next two, he cleared the bar going up but clipped it on the way down. The third try couldn't have come much closer.

"He was over it," said Potocko. "He hung over it for a half second, too. He just barely came down on the crossbar, which means he wasn't far enough into the mats. His stomach and his chest came down and grazed the bar. Everyone watching held their breath and when it fell, the whole crowd noticed."

Potocko watches El Sawi's highest vaults from the side, where he can see everything. He can analyze all aspects of the attempt and suggest adjustments.

"Omar's the star, but Josh runs the show," said Raiders coach Pat Saunderson.

El Sawi welcomes the suggestions. "Josh likes to rip apart every part of the vault, but that's good. It's hard with us not having a coach, and Josh kind of takes over."

For much of the past two years, the Raiders did have a pole vault coach, former state champ and Glenelg graduate Chris Rohde. This fall, however, Rohde headed off to West Virginia to work on his master's degree, providing coaching only by phone.

The three Raiders now train mostly on their own. They follow Rohde's workout plan for speed and endurance as well as lifting weights for strength.

During the winter, they rarely have a chance to practice the entire vault. Instead, they work out on ropes and low bars.

"The rope simulates the top of the vault, they turn upside down before you go over," said Potocko.

That turn upside down may be the toughest part -- at least psychologically.

"Any time you're 10 feet off the ground and upside down, you have to have confidence in your ability," said coach Earl Lauer, who guided three Atholton state pole vault champs before El Sawi.

"You can't take anybody and make him a pole vaulter," Lauer said. "You have to have a certain amount of speed, a certain amount of strength and the gymnastics ability and you can't have the fear -- that makes the difference between a good pole vaulter and those out there just jumping."

In such a technical sport, frustration can be an obstacle, too. Potocko started pole vaulting as a freshman but never cleared anything until his sophomore season. "It's hard because you don't always keep getting better and better," he said.

LeBard, especially, had trouble sticking with the sport. "I wanted to quit. I wasn't doing that well but they [El Sawi and Potocko] kept me doing it. I didn't know the technique that well, but that gets better with practice," he said.

Now, LeBard could end up in international competition. He met the qualifying standard for the last deaf Olympics, and he would like to compete there someday, perhaps in Denmark in 1996.

Now, the three honor students are aiming for the Penn Relays. El Sawi has met the qualifying height. LeBard and Potocko still have to vault 13-5, but they have until April 4. Their next chance comes Feb. 14 at the Class 1A-2A Central Regional championships.

The trio also jokes about going into business together after college. LeBard says he'll use his interest in architecture to design things. Potocko, the aerospace engineer, can build them and El Sawi, the business mind, can run the place.

LeBard has a year to think about his college plans. El Sawi is seeking a scholarship. He knows how to improve his chances.

L "That could come a lot easier with a state record," he said.

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