With an extra year of eligibility, former Penn pole vaulter Sean Clarke is looking to take flight with a new team.
The coronavirus pandemic has incentivized many athletes to transfer from Penn to complete their eligibility elsewhere after a shortened senior year. For Clarke, the decision was made before the pandemic.
After a hamstring injury shortened his junior year, Clarke gained an extra year of eligibility. He always knew that he would take advantage of that opportunity; it was just a matter of where he would complete it.
By the beginning of his senior year, Clarke had narrowed his choices down to Virginia Tech and Texas A&M. For Clarke, both were dream schools with strong engineering programs and track programs that focus on pole vault. The decision came down to the conference that the schools are in. Texas A&M is in the Southeastern Conference, one of the top-tier conferences in the nation, especially in track and field. With aspirations of being a next-level athlete, Clarke could not pass up the opportunity to join a SEC team.
“Because of that top-level conference, there’s just a lot of money and resources, and after having dealt with an injury, I really wanted that top-level medical care,” Clarke said.
Texas A&M’s approach to the pandemic has imitated many professional sports with a bubble-like approach. The team practices have been divided by event, so between that and having all his classes online, Clarke has spent most of his time with other pole-vaulters. He’s not allowed to leave the college town area for any reason, and doing so would result in a mandatory 10-day quarantine.
“The big difference from Penn is some of us are being paid a lot of money in scholarships to do this, so it’s very serious, and a lot of us are taking it very seriously and avoiding going out more than we need to,” Clarke said.
After spending four years at Penn with the same teammates, same coaches, and same practice facilities, the transition to a new team has been surprisingly easy for Clarke. During his recruiting visit, Clarke immediately felt he was a part of the team, rather than just being a visitor, which was something he enjoyed.
“My really good pole vault teammate at Penn, Nathan Fisher, was also an engineer like myself, and I keep finding myself at practice being a huge nerd sometimes,” Clarke said.
For Clarke, a Florida native, who spent his last four years in Philadelphia, the move to College Station, Texas was a big transition. The most glaring difference is the regular dry 100-degree weather that Texas faces day-to-day. Despite that, Clarke still finds himself walking everywhere like when he was at Penn.
“For so many people at Penn [having a car] is not a thing; we walk everywhere. It was really weird to suddenly have that a part of my college life,” Clarke said. “A lot of people here think I’m crazy because I still walk everywhere on campus, just because I’ve really come to enjoy that time.”
Clarke has also come to miss the restaurants available to him in Philly. As a vegetarian, finding restaurants that have options for him has been much tougher. As an athlete, Clarke has access to an athlete-only nutrition center that serves custom meals according to his specific nutritionist advice.
Even though he's moved on from Penn, Clarke has no regrets in spending his undergraduate years with the Red and Blue. For Clarke, Penn is unique in the fact that it is rooted in tradition and culture in a way that no other school has. From participating in unique traditions like Hey Day to playing at the historic Franklin Field, Clarke valued being able to partake in that.
“The amount of interesting people I met at Penn and the diversity was really cool, so it’s definitely made me, looking back, very happy with my choice in undergrad,” Clarke said. “At a school like [Texas A&M], I really would’ve just stuck with the athletes and lived that sports life rather than diversifying a little bit.”
Clarke leaves Penn with the first all-time record in the indoor pole vault and second all-time in the outdoor pole vault. Although his career at Penn is over, Clarke is looking to extend his impressive college career with a complete change in scenery.