Fair warning from Jason Graham: “This is going to sound silly.”
“I attach superhero names to my athletes,” said the University of Idaho’s pole vault swami.
Oh, not so silly. Silly is a major league baseball payroll or greenlighting another sequel to “Bill and Ted.” Corny, maybe.
For instance, Graham thinks of Jeremy Klas, the school record holder, as Plastic Man – tall, skinny and, it’s to be inferred, contortive. But it’s the teammate chasing Klas’ record for whom Graham saves the real distinction.
“Lucas Pope is Superman,” Graham said. “During the day, he’s definitely Clark Kent – smart guy, average, quiet. But there’s stuff he can do that’s amazing.”
This does not include leaping tall buildings with a single bound. Pope’s best vault is 17 feet, 6 1/2 inches, which would katapult him over a two-car garage and most freeway overpasses but not the big hotel on the lake in Coeur d’Alene, where he went to high school. Kinetic energy and fiberglass can only take you so far.
Eighteen feet, however, is hardly unrealistic, and that would have won the NCAA championship last year.
But Graham’s assessment is not confined to pole-and-crossbar parameters. He has seen Pope take a two-footed jump onto sections of UI’s portable runway stacked up 5 1/2 feet high. He’s been up in an airplane with Pope, a licensed pilot since age 19, at the controls (“if I’d had lunch, I would have lost it when he started doing tricks”). And he didn’t blink when Pope had to miss last weekend’s meet in Spokane to take an eight-hour Basics of Engineering exam to complete the degree he’ll collect next month.
Sample question: “A solid steel shaft which is 0.05 meters in diameter is subjected to an axial tension load of 30,000 kg and a torque of 200 kg×m. In this configuration the maximum compressive stress is most nearly …”
Compressive stress, indeed.
“The morning session is four hours and 120 questions – that’s two minutes per question,” Pope said. “Most of the time it took me a minute to read the question.”
Now the clock is ticking on a different deadline. Just six weekends remain in Pope’s last collegiate season, a half dozen chances at that 18-foot grail, the school record and a trip to the NCAAs.
Pope was the Idaho 5A high school champion with a 15-foot best when he enrolled at Idaho State in 2006 (“they offered me a scholarship; Idaho didn’t”). UI’s engineering school and proximity to his Hayden home brought him north a year later, where he wasted little time in showing the Vandals’ initial reluctance to be, uh, unwise. He was Western Athletic Conference champ indoors and out in 2008, and his 16-8 3/4 best would have been the school record had teammate Mike Carpenter not reached 17 first.
Meanwhile, Graham was dreaming up a free-standing training structure for his growing stable of vaulters – sort of a medieval torture chamber/jungle gym that would grow to include horizontal bars, gymnastics rings, straps, pulleys and a swing-up-and-invert bar. He’d just about decided the cost of construction was prohibitive until Pope’s father, Kent, started talking up the shop he was building in his backyard.
“We can do that,” Lucas told Graham.
And, voila, The Cage was born – 600 pounds of discount steel that was welded together one day and hauled down to Moscow by flatbed truck another.
“And coincidence or not,” Pope said, “we all got better.”
In the 2010 opener, Pope, Carpenter and Klas cleared 16-8 3/4 on successive jumps to break UI indoor record. Pope kept going – pushing it up incrementally each week to 17-6 1/2, only to see Klas snatch it away with a 17-7 3/4 clearance in the final meet. Then he got the outdoor record up to 17-2 3/4 that spring while Pope redshirted.
Now it’s Klas who’s redshirting – and telling Pope before every meet, “That record better come down this weekend.”
“I don’t think we really look at it as a competition between us,” Pope said. “For me, it’s nice to have someone to push me – and keep me humble, too.”
Pope took up vaulting as a high school freshman, not realizing his dad had been one, but only that it “looked fun – and a little dangerous.” Eventually, the physical challenges and technical puzzles kept him hooked – and maybe so did the assumed persona.
“It probably takes a little bit of a crazy person to vault,” he said, “not just being upside down so high in the air, but even running full speed with a big pole in your hand and jamming it into the box. No sane person would keep doing that.”
One thing’s for sure: It’s very un-Clark Kent.