Reaching New Heights with the National Pole Vaulting Championships
Jun 30, 2019 11:00AM
● By Melissa Mendonca
Story by Melissa Mendonca
Photos Courtesy of Old Town Clovis
WHEN COACH Bob Fraley’s parents left the Oklahoma dust bowl of the Depression for California, they held high hopes of a better life for their young family. One imagines that the six-month stint in Buckeye, Ariz., where they ran short of money and worked a turkey ranch for six months to earn final travel fare, only heightened their dreams for the future.
What no one would have imagined was that the chance landing of the family at a Hardwick farm on the Kings River only two miles away from Cornelius “Dutch” Warmerdam, lauded as the Pole Vaulter of the 20th Century and Fresno State’s Athlete of the 20th Century, would set the young boy on a course of pole vaulting that would start as a way to impress his sixth-grade crush to his time today, at 81 years old, organizing the North American Pole Vault Association Championships which will be held at the Clovis Farmers Market July 19.
It wasn’t long after his elementary school principal lined up five students to see the bamboo poles of their famous neighbor that the kids were running down to the river to cut their own bamboo poles and create their own vaults. While Fraley was good, he couldn’t out-vault the athletic young woman he had his eye on.
“I grew up vaulting,” Fraley says. He also grew up working the fields, where he thought his 2.2 grade-point average would keep him until a teacher suggested he go off to college to become a teacher and coach. He landed at Fresno State, where he studied IndoChina and earned a teaching credential, eventually landing his first job as athletic director at Laton High School. He moved on to Lemoore High School, where he taught and was head of the physical education department. “We went 15 years without losing a contest,” he says.
Then, as fate would have it, Fresno State came calling that his idol, Dutch Warmerdam, was retiring. Would he take over as the track and field coach? He said yes. “I had really good pole vaulters, and a really good track team,” he says. What he didn’t have was female pole vaulters, and this led to one of his most important contributions to the sport.
Through a leadership position in the North American Pole Vaulting Association, he says, “I was able to push and get the women’s pole vault as an event in the NCAA.” And by “push,” he means he met with a lawyer to produce a legal brief indicating a lawsuit would be imminent due to Title IX legislation. Women’s involvement was approved a week after the brief was delivered and 12 scholarships were developed for them to compete.
“You need to have kinesthetic awareness,” says Fraley. “These girls who had been doing a lot of gymnastics and dancing were very good at this. It takes a very skilled person and you don’t take an American fast-food philosophy. It takes a lot of time and effort.”
Another thing the sport lacked was a codified document of principles, concepts and strategies. This was resulting in injuries and deaths of athletes. “The athletes were improving but the equipment was not,” says Fraley. “In the pole vault, in the 1980s up until the mid-‘90s, there were so many injuries and 16 deaths.” As a result, many programs shut their pole vaulting programs down entirely.
Fraley convened sports medicine experts, doctors, lawyers and others to develop the document. “It was all about safety,” he says. “And then the states that had dropped the pole vault started bringing it back.”
With safety issues addressed and women added to the sport, Fraley and colleagues went about developing street vaults to bring attention to the sport. The first was held in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1994. “It was really successful and we learned so much,” he says. “We had this huge crowd that formed out there.”
The next year, the event was moved to Old Town Clovis as an event of the farmers market. “It has that old, old-time atmosphere where it’s safe to be outside,” says Fraley. It also draws a crowd, the largest estimated at 13,000. “We try to host it right at four hours,” he adds.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the North American Pole Vault Association Championships in Clovis and spectators will be able to see hometown pole vaulters from Clovis, as well as contestants from Reno, Los Angeles, Southern California and Phoenix, as well as rising stars from the worlds of collegiate and high school competition. There will be international contestants as well. Fraley speaks glowingly of the pole vaulting culture that has developed in the Valley.
Of the championships, says Fraley, “It’s just a way to encourage people to stay in it. It’s a matter of exposing it to the community.” •
North American Pole Vault Association Championships
July 19, Old Town Clovis Farmers Market