Junior pole vaulter Sean Clarke is one of the most recognizable athletes at Penn. He has a slightly unusual body type for a pole vaulter. He’s a bit short. He has long, flowing blond hair, accompanied by reflective shades, long socks, and earrings. He looks like a celebrity. This season, he also has a legitimate shot at a national title.
“The generic body type [for a pole vaulter] is normally taller, about six feet," Clarke said. “Male pole vaulting is less about height, and more about speed."
Whatever it’s about, Clarke has it. Last year as a sophomore, he set a personal record in the outdoor pole vault at 5.50 meters, good for second all-time at Penn. He won the Ivy League championship at the 2018 Ivy League Outdoor Heptagonal Championships, and was recognized as first team All-Ivy. He also earned second-team All-Ivy status in the 2018 indoor season.
This year, however, has been a different story — Clarke did not compete during the indoor season.
It’s not that unusual for a track athlete to simply take the winter off. The season is a taxing process and rest is of the utmost importance. But that wasn’t the primary reason Clarke stepped away for the season. He was dealing with a nagging injury, a partially torn hamstring. His absence was less about rest and more about recovery. Nevertheless, he feels ready for championship season.
“Most [pole] vaulters hit their peak in their late twenties, so we decided to manage [my injury] now, and it won’t be an issue later. It was basically like, ‘Let’s not push through something and make it worse,’" Clarke said.
Through the first few meets of the outdoor season, however, Clarke hasn't been at his peak level from last year. At the Texas Relays on March 30, he finished just fifth, vaulting 5.30m. All that said, his expectations remain lofty.
“At this point, it was me gearing my fitness and jumping back up. I feel like I’m hitting my stride now,” Clarke said. “In the indoor season, every meet matters because each one is a qualifier for Nationals. In the outdoors, there is a championship season, so the first meet that really matters is the Ivy Conference Championships in the first week of May. We’re going to score a lot of points in pole vault.”
The cautionary approach Clarke and the team has taken this season is largely a testament to his talent and success from previous seasons. Body preservation is incredibly important to someone with such Olympic aspirations. The pole vault squad is hoping to send at least two members to the second round of Nationals, but they’re hungry for more. Clarke hopes to get noticed for his on-the-track talents, but his unique look as well.
“My hair is building that brand,” Clarke said. “A big part of vaulting after college is making sure people know you, and actually getting your expenses paid to travel. I want people to think, ‘oh it’s the guy with the long hair, the high socks, the sunglasses,’ so I think it helps me to be known.”
The men are chasing after a title, and their next chance to compete will be at the Larry Ellis Invitational in Princeton this weekend. Be sure to look out for the guy with the hair.