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Jerry Davich: Sky’s the limit for record-setting pole vaulter

Hobart's Nicholas Stack attempts vault during boys track regional Valparaiso High School Friday evening. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

Hobart's Nicholas Stack attempts a vault during the boys track regional at Valparaiso High School Friday evening. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 27, 2013 6:58AM



Nick Stack’s arch nemesis isn’t any of the fellow high school athletes he competes against in track and field.

Nor is it the fractured foot, hip injury or locker room full of other bumps and bruises from dozens of previous pole vaulting competitions.

It’s also not his family’s record-breaking history in the ultrachallenging sport — his father, Andy Stack, and his uncle, Jimm Stack, both were known for their high-flying pole vaulting feats back in high school and college.

And it’s not the weather that torments him, although an untimely wind gust can play a huge factor in propelling the human body high into the air while remaining in perfect form.

No, Nick’s eternal enemy is the crossbar that awaits him, even taunts him, at the apex of his jump, lift and clearing. Precariously resting on two pegs on each side, the crossbar always appears oh so eager to fall victim to gravity’s pull.

“I hate the crossbar when it gets in my way,” Nick explained to me on Friday evening at Valparaiso High School. “This sport is always about competing against the crossbar more than anyone else or anything else.”

He joined hundreds of other student athletes at the 2013 Indiana High School Athletic Association Boys Track and Field Regional. The event was originally scheduled for Thursday but Mother Nature got in the way with rain, cold, and moody winds.

“It would have been death if we competed yesterday,” Nick said after warming up. “But today, today might be the day.”

He meant that it might be the day to break yet another pole vaulting record.

The 18-year-old Hobart High School senior strolled around the north end of the school’s track, habitually hovering around the landing pit. This is where all pole vault athletes eventually fall back to earth — some from 12 feet high, others from 14 feet.

Then you have Nick, whose official record-setting height is 15 feet, 6 inches. He routinely reaches such rarified air during his meets, going undefeated this year with all first-place finishes.

His high school career includes winning two conference championships, two conference records, two sectional championships, the Hobart High School field house record (15 feet) and the school’s Brickyard record (15 feet, 6 inches).

Earlier this month, Nick broke his uncle’s sectional record from 1982, and uncle Jimm traveled from Texas to watch him do it. A week earlier, he broke the conference record. I could go on, but let’s just say he owns more records than a radio deejay from the ’70s.

Last year, Nick didn’t make it to state finals. It crushed him. He hasn’t forgotten the sting.

“I took it to heart and I still have nightmares. But it’s been my driving force to be the best this year,” he said while waiting to watch other athletes vault over a 12-foot crossbar.

Nick typically has to wait to compete because he’s one of the best, if not the best.

At a previous meet, Nick had to wait five hours to finally compete. Does all the waiting ever take away his mo-jo?

“No, it only makes me want it more,” Nick quickly replied.

Nick doesn’t perform any precompetition rituals, like some student athletes. Nor does he have any superstitions before his meets. But he does have two lucky charms, his younger siblings, 3-year-old Ryan and 6-year-old Sarah, who attend all of his meets.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better role model for his little brother and sister,” his mother, Heather, told me while watching Nick compete. “They look up to him.”

Ryan always dresses the same as Nick for his meets, even wearing gym shorts on chilly nights. Ryan also practices pole vaulting in the family’s basement, getting an early start on the sport that Nick began as a high school freshman.

“They are going to be crushed when he goes to Indiana State University in August, but Nick tells me that he will miss them more than they miss him,” Heather said.

Nick’s father, Andy, vaulted 16 feet, 8 inches at Hobart High School back in the early ’80s. He hasn’t vaulted since. The sport is tougher and more dangerous than it looks.

“It takes so much speed, strength and training,” explained Andy, whose high school coach, Jim Johnston, is now coaching his son, too.

Nick added, “Pole vaulting has always been a family thing. If your last name is Stack, or Johnston, you are destined to be a pole vaulter.”

The pole vault originated in Europe, as men used them to cross canals filled with water. By the late 1800s, universities began competing in the pole vault. Today, the world-record pole vault is just over 20 feet.

The poles, made from fiberglass or carbon, are designed to absorb the vaulter’s energy while bending, before returning all of that energy as it straightens out. It’s all about potential energy, kinetic energy, and perfecting a technique so no energy is wasted.

“There’s a lot of physics involved,” Nick said after taping the end of his pole.

To qualify for state competition, Nick had to vault at least 14 feet, 5 inches. The previous regional record is 15 feet, set last year. And the VHS track record was set in 1985 by — you guessed it — Nick’s uncle, Jimm.

“He has a good chance at beating that since he went 15 feet, 6 inches at sectionals,” said Heather, a hopeful mother. “Nick has worked so hard for this.”

When Nick’s turn finally arrived, he was ready. He had speed, strength and genetic advantage, not to mention his two lucky charms.

Sure enough, his best vault was 15 feet, 3 inches, breaking the regional record.

“I was stoked,” he said afterward. “I had a great feeling in the air.”

Still, he didn’t reach his uncle’s record there of 16 feet.

“I’m gonna get it and more at state,” he said.

Stay tuned for an update after Nick competes at Indiana University on Friday.



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