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Senior pole vaulter Scott Toney poses with his pole at Franklin Field on Feb. 16.

Credit: Weining Ding

Elite pole vaulters tend to be tall, lean, fast, and incredibly athletic — traits that Penn men’s track and field senior pole vaulter Scott Toney doesn’t necessarily have. 

Scott stands just shy of six feet in height and like the rest of his family, his body retains muscle easily, which is usually a good thing, but not for pole vaulters, where the added mass merely serves as dead weight. And while he is athletic by normal standards, his speed and vertical pale in comparison with many of the other top pole vaulters in the world.

Not hitting the genetic jackpot hasn’t stopped Scott from becoming one of the best collegiate pole vaulters though. 

“I was not born some freak of nature,” Toney said. “But what I can control is my diet. What I can control is … going to the athletic trainer … so that I can minimize the chance of me getting injured. [I’m] just trying to optimize [what I do have].”

Credit: Weining Ding

Senior pole vaulter Scott Toney poses with his pole at Franklin Field on Feb. 16.

During the season, Scott is incredibly meticulous about what he puts in his body. While he loves to indulge in sweets during the offseason, when the season starts, his version of junk food goes from donuts and cookies to the very occasional lamb gyro from Greek Lady. Scott is also consistent with his time spent with the athletic training staff at Penn, making sure that he sets aside an hour each day to guarantee that his body is at its best.

It’s definitely a lot, but it’s become second nature for Scott, who comes from a pole vaulting family. Growing up in Mountain View, Calif., Scott has spent his entire life surrounded by the sport. All three of his older brothers also pole vaulted, following in the footsteps of their father. It was a foregone conclusion that Scott would also join the club, and when he turned five, he officially started his own pole vaulting career.

The Toney household was a competitive one — everything became a fight to see who could be the best. Cooperation and teamwork did not exist, for in everything they did, there could only be one winner. With his brothers being much older than him, being that sole winner was a rare experience for Scott. While that was infuriating at the time, Scott credits that experience — having to put in twice the effort with very little gain — for his current mindset when approaching competitions.

“I mean, lose for the first 12 years of your life and you're gonna want to win more than everyone else,” Scott said.

For Scott, pole vaulting was the great equalizer. There, the archives were very clear with regards to what height everyone jumped at what age. Scott being younger was no longer a disadvantage. By the end of Scott's high school career, most of the family records were his. Scott attributes the rapid improvement in his pole vaulting abilities to the brother closest to him in age: Marc.

When Scott was a freshman in high school, Marc was a pole vaulter on the University of California, Davis track and field team. Every time they practiced together, Marc would impart bits of wisdom from his experience at the collegiate level to his younger brother. To this day, Scott’s warm-up routine before every competition is the same as Marc’s. And it was also Marc that showed Scott how much impact staying disciplined could have on performance.

Marc struggled early on in his time at UC Davis to make the transition from high school to college. But after developing a more methodical approach where he gave up drinking and focused on eating healthy, Marc improved remarkably, breaking the school record en route to a 10th place finish at the NCAA Division I Championships in 2018.

“That's largely why I think the way I do,” Scott said. “It’s because he was telling me from the time I was like a freshman or sophomore, this is what you have to do, and you could be really good.”

When Scott committed to Penn, he was the second-best high school pole vaulter in the nation, and was on track to cruising to a California state title, which would have made him and his dad only the second ever father-son duo to win California state titles in the pole vault, had COVID-19 not prematurely ended his high school career. 

“I've coached maybe more than 600 kids, probably even close to 1000 with the club,” Scott’s high school coach Mike Lawryk said. “But he is by far the best male athlete I've ever had.”

Almost immediately after he made the cross-country journey to Philadelphia, disaster struck as his freshman year was largely disrupted by COVID-19. Toney then caught the dreaded injury bug, effectively putting his dreams of following in his brother’s footsteps to a nationals berth on the backburner for the time being. 

During his freshmen spring, Toney got shin splints that made it nearly impossible for him to do any pole vaulting. The following summer, while he was practicing at home, he developed a stress fracture in his back after pole vaulting on a faulty pit. After finally recovering from the fracture in time for the indoor season his freshman year, the shin splints came back. Throughout his Penn career, Toney also pulled his hamstring and dealt with the negative effects of Accutane on his athletic performance. 

“It's been challenging … he wanted to do more. He's that person,” Assistant Director of men's and women's track and field coach Joe Klim said. “And it took some time for him to realize, [he] really ha[s] to listen to [his] body and do what's best for [him].”

After overcoming his injuries, Toney's career took off. During his junior indoors season, he finished in fourth at the Indoor Ivy League Heptagonal Championships. Later that spring, Toney had one of his best seasons yet, featuring at the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships, earning him All-American honors in the pole vault.

“I think that story about Scott and how it was his first time pole vaulting that season and he finished fourth at a conference meet,” Klim said. “You have the collegiate record holder in that competition. It's not like these are people that aren't very good … It's not an easy competition.”

Credit: Weining Ding

Senior pole vaulter Scott Toney poses with his pole on Feb. 16.

Heading into his senior fall, things finally seemed to be falling into place for Scott. He was well on his way to accomplishing the goal him and Marc had talked about since the day he committed to Penn.

September 14, 2023 was like any other typical day for Scott. He was in class with two of his pole vault teammates when his older brother Sean called him saying that he should leave class. The news he heard was life-changing. The brother he had been closest to, Marc, had died after hitting his head in a fall. It was hard to believe at first, but as reality set in, so did grief.

“I called mom and that was just when I really started to cry because my mom was crying and saying how much he loved me, how proud of me was and obviously that was very tough,” Scott said.

But one thing Scott had learned from Marc was how to deal with grief and anger. Hours after hearing the news, Toney got on his bike like it was any typical afternoon and made his way to practice. Klim was surprised to see Toney at practice, especially given the circumstances, but Toney refused to take the day off. At that moment, what he needed was to work on his craft where he felt closest to Marc. Pole vaulting was a key part of both of their lives.

“Something that I'd always take away from him is after a bad meet, or if he was angry or whatever, he would just go to a stationary bike and just pedal as hard as he could and try and at least get something from the anger — get something from the tears,” Scott said. “And I thought, well, I don't want to sit on my bed and just cry about this. I'd rather get something from it. So I went to practice.”

Since he was the closest brother in age to him, Toney has plenty of great stories to tell about growing up with Marc. His favorite, though, is a rather mundane one. Scott’s favorite memory was being woken up by Marc on a particular Sunday morning when he was just 10 years old to drive to Burger King to eat some chicken nuggets.

“I never knew why that was my favorite memory until after he died,” Toney reflected. “Because it was more of the fact that nothing made him happier than just to spend some time with me. And like buying me some chicken nuggets was [worth] just like five bucks. But to him that time was priceless.”

Fully recovered and rested, all of Toney’s hard work and persistent training finally came to a head on February 24, 2024. On what would have been Marc’s 29th birthday, Scott became an Ivy League champion.

“Heps was on my brother's birthday,” Toney said. “And I just thought, it's not that I'm going into this trying to win, it's more like I'm going into this knowing I can't lose. And so I was extremely confident that I was going to win.”

And win he did. With a jump of 5.36 meters, Toney did enough to give him the edge over teammate junior James Rhoads, who finished the competition in second place with a clearance at the same height but with more attempts.

Standing on the podium and holding up the bright green Ivy League champion sign was a surreal moment for Toney. After all the injuries and loss he had gone through since coming to Penn, it seemed like a moment long in the making.

“It’s everything I want because after all of those injuries — the questions of am I going to get better and come back — I finally have something under my belt, something I have won,” Toney said. “In high school, I won [almost] everything … so having gone three years in college not winning anything — that one was just like finally, finally I've done it.”

It was also a fitting birthday present for the brother who had done so much to guide Scott on his journey to becoming an Ivy champion. For Scott’s parents, Maider and Steve, it was as sweet of a memory as a sad one. Unable to make the trip out to Cambridge to watch Scott at the Ivy Heps in person, Maider and Steve followed along on TV.

“That was really heavy,” Maider said. “Because of the fact of it being his birthday and knowing that had Marc been alive, Marc for sure would have been there … As a mom, that was really heavy but … I'm sure there's a part of him that heard his brother in his head saying ‘hey, you got this.’”

Two weeks later, Maider, Steve, and Sean made the trip out to The Track at New Balance in Boston, Mass. to watch Scott compete at the NCAA Division I Indoor Championships. There, Scott made family history by becoming the first pole vaulter to podium at the national level. With a clearance of 5.50m, Scott claimed fifth place.

“It’s well earned, well deserved and it's really just so beautiful because of everything he's been enduring, not only injuries and Marc,” Maider said. “It's just so beautiful when you see someone who is resilient. That he did not give up under everything. He endured injuries and Mark and school … it's just a multitude of jobs on top of grief.”

Moving forward, Toney has his eyes set on bigger goals. With his methodical approach to training, the senior is looking to close out his career representing the Red and Blue with a win at the upcoming 2024 Penn Relays. Toney is eager to add the watch awarded to first-place winners of the competition to his personal collection of accolades. And beyond that, the pole vaulter has his eyes turned to Los Angeles in 2028 where he hopes to secure himself an Olympic berth.

“I know no one else is doing this stuff,” Toney said in reference to his strict training and dieting regimen. “Which is why I think if no one else is doing this, I can win. I'm going to win. I'm going to be the best.”