No one had to warn Lafe Johnson about the risks and challenges of pole vaulting. “That’s why I turned out for track,” Johnson said. “To pole vault.”
Besides his physical skill – he can bench press 230 pounds – he’s got that tough mental mindset that overcomes the fear factor inherent with planting a pole and launching 13 – 14 feet off the ground. He’s a risk taker at heart. “It’s the excitement, the adrenaline,” Johnson said. “That’s what I like about pole vaulting.”
Pole vaulting isn’t Johnson’s introduction to adrenaline rushes. He’s a thrill-seeker by nature. Among his pursuits, this W.F. West High School junior has sky dived, bungee jumped and (his favorite) cliff dove into lakes. “That’s one of my favorite things,” Johnson said of cliff diving. “Doing the out of the ordinary. Doing crazy things.”
And that’s why Johnson is among the top pole vaulters in the 2A Evergreen League. Johnson, who has cleared 14 feet at practice and 13-6 in a meet, has pole vaulting in his blood. His brother, Drew Johnson, a 2008 WF West graduate, pole vaulted 15-6 at an indoor practice and was a regular first-place finisher.
“Lafe’s strength is his strength,” said Josh Brunstad, the Bearcats pole vault coach along with Don Rinta. “He’s a strong kid and he’s fast. And he’s probably one of the hardest workers I’ve seen.”
Johnson’s ingredients for success are his work ethic, his affinity for adrenaline and his physical strength. Rinta thinks that Johnson has the skills to break the school record – 15-6, set by TJ Emerick.
Time and time again, Johnson has proven himself. He’s broken several poles, making loud bursts as the pole breaks. “He’s mentally tough and he gets right through it,” Brunstad said. “I’ve broken a few poles when I was in high school and I still remember that. That’s hard to get over.”
When a pole breaks, the natural reaction is to think, “I’m not doing that again.”
“When it breaks, it explodes,” Brunstad said. “I know when Lafe broke one pole it actually false started a race because they thought it was the gun.”
Last year, Johnson again proved his mental toughness. Throughout the season, he kept feeling pain in his back. Finally, near the end of the regular season and just before league championships, Johnson went into the doctor for a checkup. He was told he had fractured two vertebra. “They said if you keep going they’ll crack all the way through and you could be paralyzed,” Johnson said.
Now, with that experience in his rearview mirror, Johnson is back. His parents support his passion for vaulting. “They’re like me,” Johnson said. “They’re good with it. Usually, I pole vault in the winter but right when winter pole vaulting started it started hurting again. I thought I better wait for the regular season. I only practiced in the winter season a couple of times.”
Rinta, one of the top pole vault coaches in the state, told Johnson to rest his back. Plus there was another reason for Johnson to put down his pole. He had broken his arm playing linebacker on the Bearcats’ football team. Clearly Johnson understands the need for mental toughness and for comebacks. “He’s a tough kid,” Rinta said.
Autumn Ledgerwood, who is in her 12th year as W.F. West’s head track coach, has been impressed by Johnson’s gritty determination to continue pole vaulting. “Well, you have to be willing to not let fear get in the way – let’s put it that way,” Ledgerwood said. “It definitely takes a mentality to be drawn to the pole vault first of all, then to be successful at it.”
Two other Bearcats with that tough mindset are Megan Flexhaug and Tom Koenig. Flexhaug, with her hard work ethic, cleared 10-3 at state last year, setting a personal best. “She’s just the steady Eddie of the group that doesn’t get frazzled,” Ledgerwood said. “She definitely has the work ethic. I feel confident she’s going to do what she plans to do. She isn’t going to get sidetracked by being intimidated by the level of competition like the state championships. She continues to do what she’s done and have success.”
Flexhaug has felt comfortable pole vaulting from her first practice. “It just looked cool,” she said, when asked why she started. “Once I did it, it was so much fun. I love it.”
Fear was never a factor for Flexhaug, who placed first in league and third at district last year. “I don’t think I ever really had it,” she said. “I never thought I’d hurt myself bad enough that I’d have to stop. So, I never really thought about it.”
Koenig, in his first year of turning out for track, is just four weeks into his pole vaulting experiment. Yet he’s already cleared 12-6 in practice and has the potential to go higher. Initially, Koenig was only going to throw the shot put. His attraction to the pole vault is simple. Like Johnson and Flexhaug, Koenig is an adrenalin junky. “I like when I feel the bend in the pole flinging me up,” Koenig said, “the adrenaline and everything.”
Typically, that’s what scares people away from pole vaulting. But not Koenig. “It’s just really fun,” he said.
The success this group is having feeds their drive to do more. In addition to adrenaline, it’s the best ingredient for fun.