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The statistics are alarming.

Since 1980, 44 athletes have suffered catastrophic injuries while pole vaulting. Thirty-eight have suffered skull fractures.

Twenty have died.

Three of those deaths have come this year -- two high schoolers, Jesus Quesada of Clewiston, Fla., and Samoa Fili of Wichita, Kan. and Penn State sophomore Kevin Dare.

Dare's death was by far the most shocking. An experienced pole vaulter -- the State College, Pa., native won the USA Junior Championships last spring -- Dare died when attempting a height of 15 feet, 7 inches, far below his personal best of 16 feet, 4 3/4 inches.

Many pole vault injuries are due to a lack of adequate facilities. But Dare died at the Big Ten championships in Minnesota, which met all proper site requirements.

If someone can die at a championship meet, then what rule changes must be effected to make pole vaulting safer?

Or, is pole vaulting simply too dangerous altogether?


The question of safety has fueled debate within the vaulting community, but everyone agrees that changes need to be made.

Jan Johnson is probably the world's foremost expert on pole vaulting safety. The chairman of USA Track and Field's Pole Vault Safety Committee has been researching ways to make vaulting safer for over 20 years.

"I don't think pole vaulting is dangerous," Johnson said. "If you pole vault correctly with good supervision, pole vaulting is not dangerous."

Johnson has quite a bit of experience in the pole vault. He won a bronze medal at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and is a former world-record holder.

But some feel that the sport needs a drastic overhaul.

One of those people is Kevin Dare's brother, Eric, a junior at Penn State, who throws the javelin and is a cornerback on the football team.

"We always knew it was a dangerous sport," he said. "Anything's dangerous when you're flying through the air... we just never realized how dangerous it was.

"If you ask me, it's quite dangerous right now. But it's not dangerous if we just improve some things and make it a little more safe."

Jill Starkey, a 2000 U.S. Olympic trials finalist, is no stranger to tragedy.

Her San Diego State University teammate Wade Knutson died in 1993 at a meet at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa -- a site that Starkey said had inadequate vaulting facilities.

"The pits there were smaller than high school pits," Starkey said. "The vaulters there were 16, 17-foot vaulters. [Knutson] went off to the right side and landed in lane one."

Starkey still believes that, although the sport is risky, it is not inherently dangerous.

"There's an element of risk in everything we do," she said. "It's hard for me to knock my own sport -- it's a great, great event -- but it has to be done right."


In 1995, the National Federation of State High School Associations made three major changes to make pits safer.

The rule changes stated that all hard surfaces surrounding the pit needed to be padded with a minimum two inches of foam rubber, no vaulter was allowed to jump on a pole under his or her body weight and no vaulter was allowed to grip the pole above the maximum grip line.

"That safened things up a great deal," Johnson said. "We had 20 catastrophic accidents in the seven years pre-1995.

"After the rule changes, we've had half as many [in the next seven years, 1995-2001]. In addition to that, all 10 accidents we had were on non-compliant facilities."

But Johnson thinks that the rules haven't gone far enough.

There is no standard rule book on vaulting that covers high school, college and open competition. And although high school has the most vaulting programs, upwards of 10,800, the rules are less uniform as athletes move up in the ranks.

"The high school rules are hugely important," Johnson said. "One of my goals as task force chairman is to get [high school, college, and open] rules the same.

"All three are different now, and that's wrong. They should all be the same... the high schools have the best set of rules. They're a lot more comprehensive than the other two groups."

Johnson also wants the standard pit size increased. In an International ASTM proposal that Johnson helped author, the pits would be 19 feet, 8 inches wide by 20 feet, 2 inches long from the front of the pads to the rear most portion of the landing area. The standards were published on Jan. 3, 2002, well before any of the recent accidents.

"I am strongly recommending that the High School Federation and the college and open divisions adopt my ASTM standards verbatim," he said. "I want it adopted just the way it's written."

But increasing the size of the pits comes with an added cost. Pole-vaulting equipment is expensive. A new complete vaulting set can cost more than $7,000, pricing out many high schools. But those schools might not need to buy a whole new set.

"We would rather have you buy a new upgrade," he said. "It's safe. We know that it can be done safely."


If Ed Dare had known more about pole vaulting, his son never would have competed.

"Is [pole vaulting] unsafe now? My answer to that is yes, it is," he said. "Had I known what I know right now, Kevin would not be jumping.

"I always knew there was a degree of danger, but nothing to the extent of my research."

But Dare does not want to end the sport. Rather, he has started Vault for Life, an organization focused on addressing safety concerns.

Vault for Life has proposed major changes that Dare hopes can help prevent future pole-vaulting injury and death.

"Can [pole vaulting] be fixed and improved dramatically?" Dare said. "Absolutely."

On May 7, a task force will convene in State College with experts from around the country. Some of the topics to be discussed include the box collar, the standardization of poles and the placement of the standards.

The point of the box collar is to eliminate all the hard surfaces and edges that surround the planting box and perhaps, prevent accidents like Kevin's from happening again.

"We're going to be talking about revamping the box itself," Ed Dare said. "We've debated on how we're going to protect it... there were a few very exciting prototypes presented to us."

The standardization of poles is another Vault for Life project. The organization wants all poles to have a standard weight rating. Currently, the ratings differ from one manufacturer to the next.

The placement of the standards is an interesting debate. The standards determine how far forward or back the bar is set from the front of the planting box. Dean Starkey, Jill's husband and a bronze medalist at the 1997 World Championships, sees a disturbing trend.

"I keep the standards at 70 or 80 centimeters back," he said. "I've seen a lot of these kids bring it up to 10 or 20 centimeters. It's very dangerous, I would never do it myself."


Aside from the financial issues, increasing athlete safety by improving the landing areas is a something that everyone can agree on.

Helmets, however, are another story.

The debate over helmets has existed for years now. Dave Johnson, Director the Penn Relays, is on the conservative side on the helmet issue.

"Some injuries would have been averted with a helmet, but others might have been caused by them," Johnson said. "Helmets don't allow the neck to compress as far as it would be able to otherwise... there's a trade-off with helmets. There is not that I'm aware of something that is specifically designed as a pole-vault helmet."

Dean Starkey is one of the few elite vaulters that support the wearing of helmets.

"I definitely agree [with helmets] for at least the high school and college levels," he said. "I think it's kind of ridiculous that they won't enforce a rule because they're worried about the liability."

Toby Stevenson, the 1998 NCAA pole vault champion, is the only top vaulter who wears a helmet in competition. But not long after Dare's death, Lesa Kubishta, an American female vaulter who has cleared 14 feet, wore a helmet with the phrase "I dare you to wear a helmet" on the side.

Research has shown that 90 percent of catastrophic injuries since 1983 have been to the head. And the three major types of vaulting injuries -- flipping off the back of the pad, slipping and landing near the box area and going off the side of the pad -- are all usually to the head. Helmets may significantly reduce the chance of head injury in these cases.

Although he is a proponent of helmets, Johnson is wary of making them mandatory at this point.

"We've done a huge amount of research already," he said. "But we can't mandate helmets until we understand all of these accidents... a lot of people think helmets are the solution.

"Helmets are not the solution. Maybe they are part of the solution."

Still, Penn women's track coach Tony Tenisci agrees with the push for helmets, especially in younger athletes.

"If it's not going to distract you in your vault, then I would rather have a helmet," he said. "I know some people may not like it, but hey -- if it could save your life, put the stupid helmet on."


Virtually everyone agrees that the main factor in preventing pole vaulting injuries is proper coaching -- teaching proper technique and keeping the vaulting area safe.

"I think it has to start with education," Jill Starkey said. "We have to teach people how to coach it and teach kids how to vault properly."

Another proposed change has to do with a "coaches box" in the center of the pit. If an athlete were to clear the bar but fail to land in the coaches box, the vault would still be called a foul. This is meant to keep athletes focused on landing in the correct spot on the pads.

Penn assistant men's track coach Jamie Cook, who was a decathalete at Penn State and thus competed in the pole vault, says he always makes sure his vaulters are safe.

"We just basically take precautions by having spotters there when guys get on bigger poles, and we always keep our standards pretty far back," Cook said. "Basically we just educate any vaulter or prospective vaulter about safety concerns."

Johnson thinks that, with proper coaching and proper facilities, there should be a minimum of problems.

"The last thing we want to do in the world is lose pole vaulting," Johnson said. "Right now we're having accidents because people aren't following the rules."


Despite the added protection that helmets, extra padding and other safety precautions have had, most experts agree that Kevin Dare's death may have been unavoidable.

Dare had been working on a 16-foot pole, a step up from the 15-foot one he had been using and felt comfortable with. But in order to clear heights of more than 17 feet, the 16-foot pole was needed. Dare had been able to clear 17 feet in practice.

Dare executed the jump and -- instead of the pole's springing him up over the crossbar -- he simply fell, headfirst, onto the metal box.

"Basically, I don't know that Kevin Dare's accident was preventable," Johnson said. "He made a huge error in judgement... I don't think a helmet would have helped him."

And so these are the questions that must be asked. Is a sport where a top young competitor can die due to a small mistake too dangerous? And will rule changes make vaulting safe enough?

Regardless, Ed Dare is going to keep trying to improve vaulting and make it safe for other people's children for the rest of his life.

"I have nothing to gain here politically and financially," Dare said. "My son did not die in vain.

"If I can help someone else save their life I will be at peace."

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