LONDON — Before Jenn Suhr walked into the Olympic Stadium tonight for the women’s pole vault, her husband/coach said, “You’re going to win this one.”
“He’s never said that,” said Suhr (pronounced “sure”). “I’ve competed hundreds of times. He’s never said you’re going to win.”
But she did. Against two-time defending gold medalist Elena Isinbayeva (RUS), Suhr overcame swirling winds and intense emotions to claim the gold medal. It’s the first gold for the U.S. in women’s pole vaulting since the 2000 Olympics — and the third U.S. medal in the event’s history.
For Suhr (née Stuczynski) and her husband/coach Rick Suhr, it was a triumphant end to a tough quadrennial. Back in 2008, the 30-year-old pole vaulter from Churchville, New York, was the biggest threat to Isinbayeva’s reign as pole vault queen.
But less than a year after the 2008 Olympics, Suhr’s health took a dive. Until then, her rise in the sport had been meteoric. She only took up the sport in 2004 during her senior year of college. Rick spotted her playing basketball and liked her aggressive hustle and passion — and her height (6’0”). He suggested she try pole vaulting.
She wasn’t very good, but she liked it. After her first couple of vaults over about 10 feet, she looked at a nearby sign that was about 12 feet high and declared that one day she would jump higher than that. Rick knew she would.
Ten months later, as a complete unknown, Suhr pole vaulted over 14 feet (4.35 meters) at 2005 USA Indoor Championships.
Her rapid progression continued. In 2007, she topped Stacy Dragila’s American record. Dragila is the 2000 Olympic gold medalist in pole vaulting.
Then at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, Suhr jumped 4.92 meters (16 feet, 1.7 inches). Only Isinbayeva has vaulted higher. The Russian holds the world record at 5.06 meters (16’7.2”). Suhr’s silver medal in Beijing seemed like the beginning of a great international career dueling with the Russian.
But after a good indoor season in 2009, Suhr’s body began to rebel.
She strained her left Achilles tendon. Then other injuries began compounding each other.
Frustration mounted. Suhr could only jump about once a week. Most world-class pole vaulters do twice that.
Suhr managed to compete when she felt well. But she couldn’t achieve high enough fitness to compete internationally. She and Rick did make it down the aisle though — marrying on January 3, 2010.
Despite not training hard, Suhr’s condition worsened.
By summer 2011, her legs began twitching and her stomach cramping. She felt sick, tired, and sore all the time.
The Suhrs researched her symptoms and talked to friends. Finally, they asked her doctor to test for Celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune condition that creates a toxic reaction in the small intestine when gluten is ingested. The reaction does not allow food to be properly absorbed. Those with Celiac often suffer from cramping, diarrhea, anemia, and fatigue.
Suhr immediately overhauled her diet and four days later, felt better.
Within a week, she was in the weight room finally increasing muscle mass. Less than a month later, she cleared 4.91 meters (16’ 1.3”). By August, she won a Diamond League meet in Europe.
Before arriving in London for the 2012 Olympics, Suhr vaulted 4.83m, the world’s highest vault in 2012. And the American has beaten Isinbayeva in their last three competitions. But the favorite in London was still Isinbayeva.
Rick knew differently. He could feel the momentum that his wife had been building all summer in practice. On the plane to London, the passionate coach almost started crying. He had to look out the window so no one would see.
“She’s healthy, she’s finally healthy,” he thought. “For her to be healthy and not sick, I think she’s the best jumper in the world.”
With a cold wind buffeting around Olympic Stadium on Monday night, Suhr proved her husband right. She easily cleared the bar at 4.55, then 4.70, smiling as she fell to the mat. By the time the bar was raised to 4.75, only four (of 12) women remained: Suhr and Isinbayeva, a spunky Cuban named Yarisley Silva, and Germany’s Silke Spiegelburg. When the German missed, the podium was decided. But not who would get what medal.
The pressure mounted, and the wind swirled. When Isinbayeva couldn’t clear 4.80 (and had missed at lower heights), she was declared the bronze medalist.
It was now down to Silva and Suhr. For Silva to win (she had misses at lower heights), she had to clear 4.80.
“That girl was giving me a heart attack!” said Rick. “I didn’t think she’d make it but …”
From the track, Suhr had an intense back-and-forth with Rick over how she should handle the wind.
But nothing worked. When Suhr missed her final attempt at 4.80, she nervously waited for Silva’s last jump and had another intense exchange with Rick.
“If he could get out there and push me over the bar, he would,” said Suhr of her relationship with her husband. “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.”
When she realized she won, the tears finally came.
“Heartbreak and joy, then more heartbreak,” Suhr said of the past four years. “To overcome it and come out on top, whenever I thought of it, I’d start crying. … I don’t think I ever wanted something so bad.”
Suhr was not the only medal for Team USA Monday night on the track. Michael Tinsley surged in the final stretch of the men’s 400m hurdles to take the silver. Four-time Olympian Angelo Taylor led until the final turn but finished fifth. Kerron Clement was eighth.
Michelle Carter finished sixth in the women’s shot put with a throw of 19.42m — a personal best. U.S. Olympic Trials champion Jillian Camarena-Williams, suffering with a back injury, did not make the finals. In the women’s 3000m steeplechase, Emma Coburn finished ninth and Bridget Franek 14th.
Lashinda Demus, T’Erea Brown, and Georganne Moline all qualified for the final of the women’s 400m hurdles. And Allyson Felix, Carmelita Jeter, and Sanya Richards-Ross will move on to the women’s 200m semifinal.
Peggy Shinn 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.