Aggie pole vaulter uses gymnastics, sprinter's speed and grit to compete among nation's best
As a freshman in college, Shae Bair picked up a pole for the first time, ran with it, stuck it in the ground and flew into the air. As she flung herself up and over the suspended bar that hung between her and the other side, she let go of the pole and freely fell to the mat, clearing her very first pole vault.
"I was so excited to clear 7-6," Bair said, laughing. "But I look back these days and think, 'Wow, that was really bad."
Now, Bair is a pole-vaulter for the Utah State University women's track and field team. She has been on the team for four years and has competed for USU for three years after redshirting when she was a freshman. Bair said she was originally recruited by Utah State as a sprinter and long jumper.
"When I got here, they wanted me to try pole vaulting because I had a gymnastics background," she said. "Ever since then, I have always been a pole vaulter."
Bair said many of the pole vaulters have had some experience with gymnastics or do several things in the gymnastics room to help their training. She said she began taking gymnastics when she was 3 and stopped by 12. However, her memory and ability for the sport have never failed her and have brought her to where she is today.
"It helped to have been in gymnastics when I was younger," Bair said. "I think it relates to pole vaulting because of body awareness and also because of the momentum of running that is carried into flinging your body in the air, twisting and turning it and then landing, all a certain way."
After her tumbling days and a year of eighth-grade cheerleading, Bair said she joined the track team in the spring of eighth grade and has competed ever since. Although her mom ran track when she was in high school, Bair said she took up track on her own.
"My family is really athletic, but my brothers are more into wrestling," she said. "My sisters have tried track, but I don't think they will pursue it like I have."
Bair's husband, Brad, also competes for the USU track and field team. They went to high school together in Idaho.
Brad said it is nice to have Shae at meets.
"When she is there it gives me someone to whine and complain to or someone to just be excited for me," he said. "It's funny though because I actually get more nervous watching Shae compete than when I do. Probably because she is better than me."
Shae disagreed with Brad as he smiled and continued fooling with the computer in their home. She expanded on why it is convenient for Brad and her to be on the same team.
"It is also really nice to be able to come home and discuss different things that we could practice," she said. "Because he is a decathlete, he does do the pole vault, so he's able to pick up things I do wrong or just help me with other stuff. I can help him a little bit, but I'm not as qualified as he is because to help me because I don't do any other event."
Shae Bair is at the top of her one event. Her personal record stands at 13 feet, 9 1/4 inches, which is just two centimeters under the second-place collegiate jumper in the nation.
"It makes me mad," she said, "because I know I can jump higher. But I'll get it."
She said her goal for the year is to clear 14-3. She said this level could be understood by comparing world pole vaulting records. The women's world record is 15 feet, 1 3/4 inches. At the college level, she said, the record is 14-7. Head coach Gregg Gansel said Bair could take it as high as she wants because of her talent.
"She has the capability of going higher (than 13 feet, 9 1/4 inches), and I think she'll get there before the end of the year."
Bair's training schedule consists of a five-hour workout every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tuesdays and Thursdays are "recovery days" with a lighter workout. She said the long workouts include warmups, running, lifting and the time spent in the whirlpool.
"If I didn't have the whirlpool, I'd be in big trouble," she said, laughing. ""I get really sore, so it feels good to loosen up in there."
Bair said her career as a pole vaulter has given her some disappointing injuries. During her freshman year, she pulled a hamstring that kept her out for a year. A shoulder injury left her on the ground for a couple of weeks, she said. She pulled her other hamstring this year, and that took her out of competition for a couple of months.
"I was a bit smarter about how to recover after the first time," Bair said. "It's hard to be injured, though, because you know what you want to do and what you feel like you can accomplish, but when you can't train it is very frustrating."
When Bair was not out because of an injury, she placed high in meets and competitions. At the 1998 Intermountain Championships, she vaulted 12-2, which was also her best in indoor meets that year. In 1998 outdoor competition, she vaulted 12-3 at the Utah College Championships. Bair also broke the Neilson Field House record, clearing 12-0. At the 1999 NCAA Championships, she placed fifth in outdoor competition and ninth indoors. The top eight finishers are All-Americans. In last summer's USA Track and Field National competition, Bair placed 10th among the best in the nation, not just those at the college level.
Her success, she said, comes from her frame of mind.
"There is nobody I think about or who I consider my inspiration in order for me to jump well," she said. "I just want to get over the bar. Besides, I like to compete for myself. If you are trying to compete for somebody else, you just don't do as well."
She said that is why she likes track.
"There are team aspects about it," she said, "but your score is your score and your height is your height."