Toby Stevenson called it the turning point of his Pole Vault career when the American scaled 6.00m in the Modesto Relays on a sunny California afternoon on 8 May 2004.
Not only was it the world’s best jump in three years and put Stevenson among an elite group of nine athletes to reach the magical 6.00m barrier outdoors. He set three career bests - 5.75 equalled PB (had jumped 5.81 indoors, 31 Jan); 5.85; 5.91 - en route to his new personal best of 6.00m.
“It was unexpected by not unrealistic,” Stevenson said. “I was firing on all cylinders and once I hit it at Modesto, it definitely changed a lot of my plans. I was rolling on all the confidence.”
Stevenson followed the Modesto competition with a runner-up finish in the U.S. Olympic Trials, and by taking the Olympic silver medal in the Athens behind his compatriot Tim Mack.“As big as it was at Modesto, I started the season like every one with certain indications and planning on having a really good season."
Retirement put on hold
At the start of 2004, Stevenson, 28, contemplated retirement after the Athens Olympics but those plans are now on hold. “It would have been dumb. I am not hanging it up yet. I still think I can jump higher.”
Stevenson will compete indoors and a full scheduled outdoors in 2005 in preparation for the IAAF World Championships in Helsinki in August. He will open the indoor season at the pole vault summit in Reno on Jan. 21 and will vault at the Millrose Games in New York in February. Stevenson will likely open the outdoor season at the Mt. San Antonio College Relays in April.
He doesn’t like to talk about heights but he didn’t rule out challenging the American record of 6.03 set by Jeff Hartwig in 2000 and Sergey Bubka’s 1994 World record of 6.14 set in the altitude of Sestriere under optimal conditions.
“Anybody can jump 6m,” Stevenson said. “One of my goals is to jump right in a meet. I’ve put the bar super high in practice and I’ve seen 6.20 but I don’t ever talk about indicators. I can tell you I jumped 30 feet in practice but it doesn’t mean a thing until I do it in a competition.”
Stevenson is known much for his vaulting accolades as his trademark black roller hockey helmet and energetic celebrations. His Web Site www.tobystevenson.com greets visitors with “WHAT’S UP, PEOPLE!!!! In block letters, is a crowd favourite for his spontaneous dances.
One of Stevenson’s favourite stunts is to ride the pole around the mat like a stick horse or throwing his bar in the air and pretending to shoot it down with a rifle. At the 2004 Olympic Trials, Stevenson threw his helmet to the mat and beat his chest like Tarzan. In Athens, he did a “shimmy-shake” with his hands after an early clearance and then played the his pole like an electric guitar after his silver medal vault.
“A lot of it is reactionary,” Stevenson said. “I am having a great time. I want to make the pole vault fun and to interest fans in the pole vault. People love a personality and I want to help the sport with high energy.”
Stevenson began wearing a hockey helmet as a safety precaution as a high school senior at Permian High in Texas in 1995 where he was the top-ranked age-18 vaulter that year. Stevenson was given the nickname “Crash” for his helmet by former American high jumper and television commentator Dwight Stones after he won the 1998 NCAA outdoor pole vault title at Stanford.
Stevenson was coached in high school by his father Eddy, a biomechanics professor, but has been self-coached ever since. “In terms of just the pole vault, it’s been me and a video camera. I don’t trust anybody else. I have a lot of experience and study the sport. The Pole Vault is a lot like religion and politics, everybody has an opinion on what is right. I am the only one who knows what’s best for me.”
He currently trains in Southern California at the ARCO Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista with longtime friend Kurt Hanna. Todd Henson assists Stevenson with his strength and speed training, while Stevenson’s girlfriend Kellie Suttle, the 2001 World Indoor silver medallist, offers occasional input.
Stevenson also credits Edrick Floreal, a 1988 and 1992 Canadian Olympian in the Triple Jump, who assisted in his workouts while attending Stanford where he graduated with an Economics degree in 2000. “(Floreal) has been a huge part of my success and so has the input from my father.”
Paying his dues
Stevenson had a rocky start to his professional career after a collegiate career at Stanford. There, Stevenson was a six-time All-American and helped Stanford to its first outdoor national title in 66 years with his runner-up finish in the 2000 NCAA meet.
In 2001, Stevenson broke his left ankle on his takeoff leg in practice during his first year as a post-collegian. In 2002, Stevenson was sidelined for more than a month from a punctured lung suffered from a fall in Oslo during his first international competition at the Bislett Games.
In 2003, Stevenson competed for much of the season without a sponsor wearing a black singlet with the word “Uniform” on it. “It was kind of a lean time. I am kind of a loaner and wanted to do my own thing for a joke.”
Stevenson’s persistence started to pay off later in 2003 when he finished fourth in the U.S. Championships and won the Pan-American Games gold medal. “It’s been a lot of hard work. I paid plenty of dues and working my way through the system.”
Kirby Lee for the IAAF