Travel Tales Part I: Flying with Javelins, Paddles, and Pole Vaulting Poles
It's hard enough to fly to Atlanta with two suitcases these days, but imagine trying to get to China with a javelin. Or a pistol, sabre, paddle, horse, sailboat, or - heaven forbid - a pole vaulting pole. For Olympians whose sport requires traveling with unwieldy equipment, the least of their worries is the new $25 fee for a second checked bag.
This series will examine the Olympic challenge for which there is no gold medal: traveling with cumbersome sports equipment.
For 10 years, Kim Kreiner, the American record holder in women's javelin has had to travel with a set of 7-foot long spears that weigh just over one pound each.
They're too tall and too thin for designer luggage but Kreiner discovered the next-best thing: plumbing tubes.
"I just cut it to length and made my own carrying tube," she said. "It's a three-inch diameter PVC pipe with a screw top and bottom. It cost me between $5 and $7 and I haven't had to replace it in three years."
It accommodates three javelins and fits tightly enough so they don't bounce around. "The only way airlines could wreck them would be to saw my tube in half or bend it," she said.
The exterior is black, studded with stickers, and bears Kreiner's Fresno, Calif., phone number because, she said, "something always gets lost with me - either my bag or my javelins.
"In 2006, I went to Brazil and the javelins didn't make it, even though I had a five-hour layover in L.A." After four days, they re-surfaced, but it was too late - "so I just borrowed," she said.
Borrowing a javelin is possible because its architecture is extremely specific. Rules mandate lengths and widths. Grips must be a particular distance from the tip. And a formula dictates how to center the balance point. During competition, officials weigh and inspect the implements to make sure they're the same.
"The only way a person can customize a javelin is with a paint job," Kreiner said.
At major international meets, the host organizer will provide javelins but at smaller meets they don't. Still, there's nothing better than hurling a familiar object.
"Most of the time, the airlines will take them," she said, adding that women's javelins can also fit on prop planes because they are up to 20 inches shorter than the men's.
"It makes a big difference on a plane," Kreiner said.
Unlike Kreiner, flatwater kayaker Carrie Johnson only has to travel with half of her gear.
"We're just responsible for bringing our paddles," she said. (The US team's coach drives the kayaks from race to race.)
Some paddle shafts are made to break apart, but Johnson's require no assembly.
She usually tucks two of them into hard ski case. The paddles just fit lengthwise and she puts jackets around the shafts to fill up the extra space.
"The airlines have allowances for sports equipment, but paddles aren't usually listed," she explained. "I'm always hoping because it's in a ski case, they won't say anything."
Another tip: "Sometimes, if you have a USA shirt on, the checker will be a little more lenient with you."
Then, there's the mother of all freight migraines: the pole vaulting pole.
"It's an absolute nightmare," said Rick Suhr, who coaches Jenn Stuczynski, the 2007 US national champion. "It's the hardest part of my job.
"Only about a third of all airlines will even take a pole. Men's poles are 17 feet long. Jenn's are about 14 ½ feet. I know someone whose poles were cut in half by the airline to make them fit.
"You never want to ship the poles, either," Suhr said. "If you do, half the time you'll never see them again."
"It's pretty hard to borrow one," Stuczynski said. Unlike javelins, poles can be any length, diameter, and made of any smooth material. "You'd have to find someone the same height and weight who jumps with a similar style. It's tricky."
So is maneuvering around the airport with a bag of seven poles on one's shoulder.
"I stand back with the luggage and follow [Rick] when he turns corners so no one gets hit," Stuczynski said. "It's such a process. At JFK, you get off the air train and instead of taking the winding stairway, you have to hand them straight down. You're sweating. It's something you dread every time.
"The hardest thing is automated doors," she said. "You have to get through the sensor right away. Half the time they close on you."
"Try getting them through the X-ray machine!" Suhr said.
"At the check-in counter, right away, they say, ‘That's not going to work.' Then customs officer comes over and says, ‘What is it?' Then security, and so on," Suhr said.
"Every airline has a different policy, too. Some carriers will only take 14, 15, or 16 poles total. Some will only take one pole. Some will only take one pole in one case. They'll even pull poles out [of the bag to comply with their peculiar rules], that's how crazy it's become," he said.
Then the labyrinth begins. They are often directed to alternate routes through the airport because no one from the airlines wants to carry a 50-pound bag of poles either.
"You find places in airports that you didn't even know existed," Stuczynski said.
Add to that, the aeronautical research that goes into trip planning. Suhr keeps a list - not just of airlines - but of the particular planes in which the poles can fit.
"If it's not a 737 or bigger you can't put poles on them," he said. "It really limits how and when you can travel."
For Stuczynski and Suhr to travel (with poles) from their training base in Rochester, N.Y., for the 2008 Indoor World Championships in Spain, the most expedient option included a 12-hour layover in Philadelphia.
"There was no way around it," Suhr said.
What happens when they land in Europe?
"Oh man," Stuczynski said. "In Munich and Monaco, the airport is 45 minutes from where we stay. We have the taxi number of a guy we found who will take them.
If they rent a car, there's rarely a roof rack.
"Every pole vaulter travels with straps," Stuczynski said. "We can attach them to anything, even a Smart Car.
Next: How to fly with a horse, a sailboat, and firearms.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.