LONDON — Amid swirling winds and rain Monday, American Jenn Suhr clinched the women’s pole vault gold medal, then rushed toward her husband Rick in the Olympic Stadium stands. She buried her head in his chest and sobbed. He draped Suhr in an Olympic flag and sent her on a victory lap. This was her moment, though they worked together as husband and wife, coach and athlete, to make it happen.
“If he could get out there and try to push me over the bar, he would,” said Suhr. “He’s done so much for me. He cares so much. People are like, ‘Your coach is intense.’ But it’s because he has that passion and knows how much I want it. With two people with that passion and drive, we compete and we compete hard . . . We’re emotional. It’s something that we put our hearts into and our blood, sweat, and tears. So, it’s two people working for one goal.”
Coach and athlete went back and forth during the competition, communicating about how Suhr felt, about the changing weather conditions, about what pole to use. There were plenty of adjustments to make on a night that proved challenging for all competitors. And that elite group included world record-holder and two-time Olympic gold medalist Elena Isinbaeva of Russia. In the stands, Rick Suhr kept thinking about how good Isinbaeva is, about her status as the most dominant women’s pole vaulter of all time. Images of the 1980 US Olympic men’s hockey team and its upset of the seemingly invincible Soviet Union squad flashed through his mind.
At 4.70 meters (15 feet, 5 inches), the field narrowed to three contenders — Suhr, Isinbaeva, and Yarisley Silva of Cuba. Both Suhr and Silva missed their first attempts at 4.75 (15-7), then cleared the bar on their second. Meanwhile, Isinbaeva, who has struggled the last three years and questioned whether she wanted to continue competing, missed her first and second attempts, passed on her final attempt, and moved up to 4.80 meters (15-9). She needed to clear the bar for a third straight gold. She missed and settled for bronze.
“For me, this bronze is like gold,” said Isinbaeva, who suffered a quadriceps injury in May and rushed her Olympic preparations.
Suhr and Silva also missed at the height. But since Silva missed at her opening height earlier in the competition, Suhr, 30, won gold with her 4.75 vault and Silva earned silver and a national record with the same mark. Given the Russian’s résumé, Suhr said it was “an honor” to defeat Isinbaeva. The victory also placed Suhr in good company with American women’s pole vaulting pioneer and 2000 Olympic gold medalist Stacy Dragila
Isinbaeva acknowledged she was drained by the conditions with a final height, while Suhr appeared largely unaffected. She enjoyed the benefits of training in upstate New York in an always chilly Quonset hut nicknamed “Rocky’s meat cooler” with an uphill runway and slanted box where vaulters plant their poles. The spartan training facility is located on the Suhr’s property, about 50 meters from their house.
“It’s definitely hard to separate the relationship from the pole vault,” said Suhr, who earned the US its second gold of the track and field competition. “The pole vault is something we do, but it’s not all of our life. Our life consists of 100 other things. When our training is over and done for the day, we leave it there.”
Added her husband: “We are completely dependent on each other for our success. I don’t think there is a more unique relationship between a coach and an athlete, and a more dependent one. And it is good. Together, we gain momentum. I believe in Jenn completely. Jenn believes in me completely. And I think after tonight a lot more people are going to believe in what we do completely.”
That belief carried Jenn from a disappointing silver medal in Beijing through an Achilles’ injury and diagnosis of Celiac disease to London. And it helped Rick get past an infamous moment at the 2008 Olympic Games when television cameras caught him yelling at Jenn after her second-place finish. On Monday, Rick was unusually positive. Before the competition, he told his wife, “You’re going to win this.” That was the first time he said anything like that and it gave her extra confidence.
Rick has always been a good predictor of Jenn’s performance, discovering her as a basketball player eight years ago. and developing her into a gold medalist.
“It started out slow,” said Jenn. “I started out jumping just like everyone else, stiff pole-ing, then bending the pole. I thought, ‘This is a really hard event. This is harder than anything I’ve ever done.’ But it becomes addicting and it’s something that you want to get better at and something that you want progress in. I won US nationals and I was like, ‘I can maybe be good at this.’ ”