Reaching new heights

Track and field: Westminster's Andy Kuchera pole-vaulted 9 feet as a freshman. Now as a senior, he has reached 13 feet, 6 inches, and is rising into contention for a state championship.

High Schools

April 29, 2001|By Rick Belz | Rick Belz,SUN STAFF

Andy Kuchera's personality dovetails with what Westminster track coach Jim Shank says you look for in a pole-vaulter.

"Pole-vaulters like to experiment and do crazy stuff," Shank said. "It's a daredevil event with a fear factor, so you look for someone who's done skateboarding or gymnastics."

Kuchera, who jumped 13 feet, 6 inches at the Westminster Invitational - second best for a Westminster athlete and in the Baltimore area this spring - said he was big into skateboarding for a couple of years, is also fond of surfing and snowboarded for the first time last winter.

He's a person who doesn't mind falling from high places, despite fracturing an ankle on his first vault as a freshman.

"I'm an easygoing guy with a good sense of humor, and you have to take falls with the attitude that there's always another day," Kuchera said. "Coach [Shank] always says you need a couple of loose screws to keep going at this sport."

Kuchera said pole vaulting interested him because "it seemed cool, and I had nothing better to do."

Now, he's flirting with winning a state championship, hoping that he can maintain his 13-6 level, and that it will be good enough to win.

Shank thinks Kuchera will go higher - to 14-0 or even 14-6.

"You have to get the right conditions to pole-vault well, and early season is not conducive to good vaults," Shank said. "Windy, and temperatures at 40 degrees are bad conditions. The cold makes the pole stiffer so it doesn't bend as easily."

Kuchera recalls trying to pole-vault one day this spring in the snow.

Only one Westminster vaulter ever soared higher than Kuchera. In 1993, Geoff Liberge set a Carroll County record of 15-4, finished third at the Penn Relays and won a state title after arriving from France following his father's job transfer.

Kuchera isn't likely to top 15 feet, but being No. 2 behind Liberge doesn't bother him. Not much does.

He's the type of kid with the patience to restore a 1975 yellow Volkswagen that he now proudly drives. He's smart enough to carry a 3.75 grade-point average and score 1,120 on the SAT. And he's industrious enough to work two jobs in addition to school and track.

The 6-1, 160-pound senior, who'll attend Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, jumped 9-0 his freshman year, 11-0 as a sophomore and 12-6 his junior year.

He won the outdoor regional title last spring and was third in the state. He won the indoor regional this winter and was second in the state.

He believes good form is the most important part of successful pole vaulting.

"At the higher heights, strength and speed aren't as important as form," he said.

You must run 80 to 100 feet and then plant the pole into a hole directly underneath the bar, with just a two-inch margin for error.

The key to success is bending the pole. And the higher you hold the pole, the farther you can bend it to achieve a catapult effect. Speed allows the vaulter to achieve a higher hold on the pole. Strength allows you to bend the pole further.

The pole's strength is geared to the vaulter's weight, and the pole's length is geared to the height he is jumping. Kuchera now uses a 14-foot pole.

Poles can break, usually into three pieces. Kuchera's never has.

"Some guys freak out when their pole breaks," he said.

The obvious danger and the difficulty in finding coaching, separate pole vaulting from other track events.

"There aren't many older guys around to coach who are still vaulting," Shank said.

Kuchera has attended pole vaulting camps at Shippensburg College where his sister, Becky, pole-vaults. Dick Estes, former Woodlawn track coach, drops by a couple of times a week to help the vaulters.

Like most who compete, however, Kuchera has depended upon fellow vaulters to acquire knowledge.

"Sean Valis and Jay Nixon [who have graduated] taught me along with Cindy Reese, who helped me a lot my sophomore year. My sister also helped. We coached each other."

Said Shank: "Kids are great teachers. It's easier to teach if you can demonstrate."

It helps that Westminster has had at least one 12-foot vaulter for the past five years.

Westminster has one of the largest and most successful pole-vaulting contingents in the area this season - seven guys and six girls. So far, Noah Chadwick has vaulted 12-0, and both Clint Stone and Pat McDonald have hit 11-6.

"We're probably the only school with four guys vaulting at least 11-6," Kuchera said.

The team is geared for the Central Maryland Conference championships Thursday, the first significant test on the road to the state championships.

"It's cool to live up to your dream," Kuchera said.

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