Tahlequah Daily Press

Sports

August 7, 2012

Suhr brings home Olympic pole vault gold for US

LONDON — For the first time before a big meet, Jenn Suhr heard a positive message from her husband, Rick, who's also her coach.

While sending Jenn onto the field for the Olympic pole vault final Monday night, Rick told her nobody's unbeatable — not even Russian superstar Yelena Isinbayeva, the two-time champion and world-record holder.

And so, Suhr went out and proved him right, defeating Isinbayeva, capturing the gold and giving a nice boost to the United States track and field team, which hasn't been getting many breaks so far at the London Olympics.

"Before I went out here, he said, 'You're going to win this,'" Suhr said. "I've competed 100 times and that's not something he says. It puts that extra spunk that I could do this. Someone else believes in me that much."

When it was over, Suhr rushed over to the stands to see her husband, who gingerly wrapped an American flag around her shoulders while she sobbed into his chest.

A quite different scene from four years ago in Beijing, when Rick was caught on camera berating Suhr after her disappointing runner-up finish to Isinbayeva. Few knew at the time that they were romantically involved and would be married two years later.

Yes, they've come a long way together.

From training in a pair of Quonset huts that Rick connected together to form a jumping pit — the blue-collar practice area in western New York they call "Rocky's Meat Cooler" — to winning an Olympic gold medal on the sport's grandest stage.

Suhr vaulted 15 feet, 7 inches (4.75 meters) to defeat Cuba's Yarisley Silva, who cleared the same height but lost on a tiebreaker because she had one more miss in the competition.

More significantly, Suhr beat Isinbayeva, who failed to become the first woman to win the same individual track and field event at three consecutive Olympics. Isinbayeva settled for bronze with a vault of 15-5 (4.70).

"Of course I'm not a fairy tale," she said.

Though Isinbayeva has struggled since her last Olympic gold, Rick Suhr wouldn't listen to any of that.

Like so many in their pole vaulting world, the Suhrs have long considered Isinbayeva the gold standard. After his wife finally beat the Russian, Rick compared Jenn to wrestler Rulon Gardner — who beat the undefeated Alexander Karelin in 2000 — and himself to Herb Brooks, who coached the 1980 Olympic hockey team to its shocking win over the Russians and eventual gold.

"It's such a big upset, I don't think people realize how big it actually is," Rick Suhr said.

And yet, for the U.S. track team, it only moves the scoreboard up by one notch. Suhr's was a surprise gold for the Americans on a night when they couldn't catch a break anywhere else.

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Angelo Taylor staggered to the finish in the men's 400-meter hurdles for fifth place in a race won by 34-year-old Felix Sanchez of the Dominican Republic. Sanchez finished in 47.63 to beat American Michael Tinsley to the line, as the United States took only one medal in an event where it captured all three in Beijing.

"It's a new day, it's a new era," said the 33-year-old Taylor. "Things change. People evolve. People show up."

Defending 400-meter sprint champion LaShawn Merritt wasn't among them, however.

The American was heading back home after pulling up with a hurt hamstring in the first round. With no other American men in that final, 19-year-old Kirani James gave Grenada its first-ever Olympic medal. He took the lead at the halfway point and ran hard to the finish line even though he hardly needed to — winning in 43.94 seconds.

It was the first time since the 1980 Moscow Games that someone other than an American won the men's 400. Merritt went home to start rehabilitating, figuring there was no need to try to run the 4x400-meter relay — where the Americans have won seven straight — at less than full health.

"You can't be 75 percent in track," said Merritt's coach, Loren Seagrave.

Earlier, Americans Lolo Jones and Dawn Harper, the defending Olympic champion, made it through the first round of 100-meter hurdles qualifying, along with world champion Sally Pearson of Australia.

In the women's 200, Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica provided the only bit of drama in preliminaries, barely making it into the top three to move on to Wednesday.

Americans Allyson Felix and Carmelita Jeter, Jamaican 100-meter gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and 400-meter winner Sanya Richards-Ross of the U.S. also made it through. Richards-Ross had the best time of the bunch at 22.48 seconds after a restless four or five hours of sleep the night before with her new gold medal.

"I just feel lighter and free and so I'm just going to go out there and give it my best and hopefully make it through the semifinals as well," she said.

While Richards-Ross was expected to win in the 400, Suhr wasn't really the favorite. She's been through a lot the last four years — namely, an Achilles injury, a gluten allergy that has caused sometime-debilitating sickness and, of course, the always-hovering presence of Isinbayeva, who despite her recent struggles still has a lot of her competition cowed before they ever step into the stadium.

It felt that way for Suhr — then Jenn Stuczynski — in Beijing, where the cameras caught Rick berating her minutes after she finished second. Lost in that snippet was the relationship that developed as he became more to her than a coach.

"If he could get out there and try to push me over the bar, he would," Suhr said. "He's done so much for me. He cares so much. People are like, 'Your coach is intense.' It's because he has that passion and knows how much I want it. It's two people with that kind of passion and drive."

Maybe their practice facility tells their story best — a cold, unforgiving, shell of a place that hardly looks like the training center for an Olympic champion.

"It's uphill, a slanted box, a lot of messed-up stuff," Suhr said.

As time has passed, Rick Suhr has had to keep expanding it. Upward. Because his wife's jumps threaten to scrape the roof.

And yet, rough as those conditions can be, Rick Suhr said it was worse at the stadium in London, where the pole vaulters were met with drizzle, rain, shifting winds.

Before all of Suhr's jumps, she would look to the stands where her husband would be holding his arms straight out in one direction or the other, signaling Jenn to make certain pole adjustments depending on the wind.

"You can see the way it goes back and forth," Suhr said of the constant conversation she carries on with her husband during a meet. "We're talking. We're emotional. It's something we put our hearts into, and blood, sweat and tears.

"It's two people," she said, "working toward one goal."

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