Updated: May 28, 2009 at 12:00 am
You've surely noticed them while driving under bridges on Interstate 25 - clearance heights, posted for truck drivers.
Air Force junior Nick Frawley notices them too.
"I look at the height and I'm like, ‘Well, that's kind of cool,'" Frawley said.
It's cool because, more often than not, Frawley knows he can fly over those heights with nothing more than a running start and a fiberglass pole.
One of the nation's top collegiate pole vaulters, Frawley will be trying to clear heights of 17-plus feet this weekend at the NCAA Regional Championships in Norman, Okla., with 11 other male and five female Falcons competing. He'll be attempting to qualify for the NCAA Outdoor Championships on June 10-13 in Fayetteville, Ark., and another chance at a national title.
Last year Frawley cleared 17 feet, 2¾ inches to place second at the NCAA outdoors - the highest finish by
an Air Force male athlete at nationals since Ralph Lindeman took over as the academy's coach in 1989.
"I get frustrated that there's not enough appreciation at this institution for where he is," Lindeman said of Frawley, who this past winter set an Air Force indoor record with a vault of 18-1. "Last year at the NCAA outdoors, he was second in the nation. Imagine the second-best point guard in the nation or the second-best quarterback in the nation. Not that a pole vaulter is ever going to get as much publicity as a point guard or a quarterback, but he was the second-best vaulter in the country. ... He could win the nationals (this year). He's capable of it."
So how did Frawley become an elite performer in this quirky event? And, moreover, how did he even find his way to it?
Frawley grew up playing baseball, basketball and soccer - "just like everyone else," he said. But when he got to his middle school, which had a track team, he saw the pole vault and decided to try it. He liked it immediately.
"It's kind of an extreme sport, I guess," said Frawley, whose twin brothers, Eric and Vince, are two of the top five high school pole vaulters in the country. "I love the rush."
Frawley cleared 8 feet in seventh grade and improved rapidly - vaulting 11-3 in eighth grade and then 14-6, 15-6, 16-4 and 17-1, respectively, in each year of high school.
Frawley got in extra practice in the back yard of his home in Midlothian, Texas, where his parents built a pole vault pit. And it's in large part because of his work ethic that he's continued to go higher at Air Force and become a national championship contender.
In addition to his weightlifting regimen, sprint work and practice vaults, Frawley does intense video analysis of his meet performances.
"He's a great student of the event," Lindeman said. "He studies the event, he picks experts' brains."
The 5-foot-10, 160-pound Frawley also has the skills and physical attributes needed to succeed at a high level. Those include good gymnastic ability, strength and speed - "He is possibly fast enough to run on our sprint relay team," Lindeman said.
Perhaps most importantly, Frawley has confidence and a strong mental disposition.
"There can be no fear," Lindeman said. "A guy like Nick is inverted on a pole that's 18 feet up in the air, that's scary stuff.
"... Somebody asked, ‘How do you attribute the fact that Air Force has such good vaulters?' I said, ‘The kind of guys who are pole vaulters are the kind of guys that like to fly jets at Mach 2 with their hair on fire.'"
Frawley came to Air Force to fly, but said he might not qualify physically because of his eyesight. Immediately after graduation, however, he hopes to participate in the academy's World Class Athlete Program, which allows graduates who meet certain qualifying standards to receive a two-year hiatus from their career fields to train for the Olympics.
"I feel like before I go and serve my country in the Air Force I need to run this athletic thing as far as I can and see what I can do with it," he said.
Frawley said his ultimate goal is to qualify for the Olympics. And Lindeman, who coached pole vault for the U.S. at the 2004 Games, called him "a legitimate candidate to make the 2012 team."
Until then, however, Frawley will concentrate on NCAA events. And take a certain satisfaction when driving under bridges.
HOW HE DOES IT
Here's a step-by-step look at how Air Force junior pole vaulter Nick Frawley clears 17-plus feet.
1) The Mental Preparation
Frawley has a set routine - detailing everything from what he eats to what he thinks on the day of a meet - that he has written down and tries to follow exactly. A crucial part of his routine happens just before he takes off down the runway to perform a vault: He'll close his eyes and picture a perfect jump from different angles. "I try to see myself doing it, and I think that really fires the same type of neurons that I would use if I was actually completing the jump," Frawley said.
2) The Approach
After picturing his vault, Frawley sprints down the runway - his run covers 132 feet - carrying the pole in both hands by his right hip. He tries to attain maximum speed. "The faster and more powerful you can be, the better you're going to be in the pole vault," he said.
3) Preparing for Takeoff
Frawley morphs from sprinter to vaulter with his last three steps. On his third-to-last-step (with his left foot), he begins to shift the pole upward. On his second-to-last-step (with his right) the pole is at about his right shoulder. By his last step (with his left) the pole is at about his right ear.
4) The Launch
With his final step, Frawley explodes off his left leg into the air - "You want to be quick and powerful," he said - and simultaneously plants the pole.
5) The Swing
As Frawley gets airborne, he swings his legs forward. "It creates a lot of energy, it moves the pole and it gets your hips up on top of everything." The pole bends backward at first but begins to straighten and cast Frawley up toward the bar. At the same time, the swinging motion inverts Frawley. By the time the pole has bent back and is perpendicular to the ground, Frawley is too - head pointing toward the ground and feet to the sky.
6) The Dismount
With his body and the pole perpendicular to the ground, Frawley begins to twist his body 180 degrees so the front of his body is facing the bar. He then lets go of the pole and arches his body over the bar.
7) The Fall
Once Frawley twists, he can see the bar. And he knows if he has cleared it cleanly before he starts to fall back to earth. If he has, it's time to admire his work. "Because you're falling from 18 feet, you have some time to look at it and celebrate on the way down," he said.