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Vaulting to New Heights

March 24, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn Sting Daily There are two more days of track and field coming up at Georgia Tech, all day today and tomorrow, and that gets me to thinking: who invented the pole vault?

And what were they thinking? How did that thought process begin?

Hey, Orasteces; I got an idea – let’s get a big stick, run, jam it into the ground, hang on, hope it doesn’t snap, and see what happens . . .

Actually, my questions came up at a college/high school meet last weekend at Tech, where Yellow Jackets Joanna Wright and Aaron Unterberger won the men’s and women’s pole vaulting competitions under the tutelage of a fine, new Russian coach who once aspired to compete for the Soviet Union.

Wright and Unterberger had already competed by my arrival, but I was up close for the high schoolers – front and center amid real theater.

A bunch of kids were running the 3,200 as the pole vault was winding down, and there, in the infield, Tech’s vault coach was counseling – somewhat firmly — a high school kid, the only one left in the competition.

The strapping lad had obliterated the meet record with a height of 16 feet, nine inches, a mark that would’ve won the college competition. Yet the coach crabbed. No offense, but from my vantage point about 30 feet away there was a heavy, machine-like lilt to whatever he was saying; I couldn’t make out a bit of it. Then, the kid barked back in Russian, and Viktor Kirillov took off running.

At this point, Mom, who was oddly positioned in the infield not far from the vault pit, walked up to the tall, broad-shouldered phenom. Turns out that was Olga, wife of Viktor, and the mother and high school coach of one Nikita Kirillov.

This is a family affair.

There was some chatter, a bit of air-vaulting (think air guitar, and you’ll get it), and back came Dad.

Jogging with a 15-foot (or so) bag balanced and bouncing on his shoulder, Viktor flopped a selection of more poles to the ground. Son ripped open a zipper, and rifled through several poles as if picking a big, golden, uncooked pasta noodle from among several.

Nikita narrowed it down to two, put their tips on the ground, measured them for feel (one appeared about an inch shorter than the other, and they looked to be made of different composites), Viktor said something, Olga added a comment, and a family decision was made.

Having missed twice at 17 feet, two inches, this would be the last try for Nikita Kirillov of St. Pius X Catholic High School in DeKalb County. Back to the runway with a new pole, Nikita went.

Before loading up, he let the pole rest on the ground before him, and on a shoulder. He began clapping his hands over head. The crowd followed suit. Something was said over the P.A. system, though I can’t recall what.

Two hands grabbed the pole, the leading edge was raised, Nikita rose up on his heels, and started hauling – he was cooking up his last vault.

That pole surely isn’t light, which explains why strength is important in the event. The stronger a vaulter, the heavier a pole he/she can carry, and the more flex can be generated once that pole is planted.

The tip started falling, then, “Th-wump!” Into the box it went.

Up went Nikita, eventually feet over head, over the cross bar, body twisting, pole having been left to fall away, and then down he flopped onto a pad. And the cross bar stayed put – 17-2 in the books!

Nevermind that he missed three tries at 17-5; Kirillov’s effort was one of the best in the nation so far in this young outdoor season.

We move now to Dad, to Viktor Kirillov, and ask: how when growing up in the Soviet Union, did he come to be a pole vaulter?

“I started [around] 12 . . . We play[ed] soccer, basketball, just for fun, not competition,” he said. “I first competed around 14 and 15, not as young as kids today. We had sports schools. I remember going to practice and [I] wanted to high jump. I see somebody do pole vaulting . . . I say, `Can I try?’ “

Kirillov, 57, was pretty good and had high aspirations, but a vaulting accident left him with a badly broken right arm. Although he’s had two surgeries, he cannot come close to straightening that arm now. His right elbow looks more like the knee of, say, a 12-year-old; very oversized, with a big scar.

“I try to pay attention for kids not to have injuries,” the Tech assistant said. “That’s very important. I do mistake, I don’t want students to do mistake like me. A long time ago, a doctor said, `It’s amazing you save[d] your arm.’ “

Kirillov eventually coached in the Soviet Union, and after the breakup of the USSR, in Ukraine. He says he is Russian.

The world pole vault record holder for nearly two decades, Sergey Bubka, competed for the USSR and then Ukraine. He once went as high as 20 feet, one ¾ inches outdoors, a tad higher indoors.

Olga once harbored dreams of competing in the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996. Viktor said she was an elite swimmer, and a pretty good heptathlete, too.

Nikita and his older brother, who played basketball at Oglethorpe, changed those plans; parenthood has been known to alter courses.

The Kirillovs moved to Atlanta anyway in 1999.

Viktor coached at St. Pius X before this year, and his son still competes for the Golden Lions and his wife coaches there.

He still coaches his son. It is, after all, a family affair.

“We have many, many discussions about technique and style,” Viktor said. “I do everything step by step. I don’t want to see results today. I want to see results later because too many preparations go into it.

“Joanne, she’s strong, she’s fast, technically . . . needs more preparation. I try to change a little bit her technique. It’s possible. Aaron, my student, easy to work with. I know him very well, and . . . my method is good for him.”

Wright won an ACC title last year, and has realistic aspirations to advance to the NCAA championships later this spring. Unterberger, who has worked with Viktor Kirillov in the past, is on the rise.

The coach gets nervous when they compete, but not quite like when he watches the kid from St. Pius.

“Every one [of] my students, my heart [is] beating. I worry [about] everyone,” Viktor Kirillov said. “This is like one family. When my son competes, [it beats] twice [as] hard.”

Pole vaulting is really something else. My brief amateur research reveals that forms of the sport have been around for many centuries, although the origins had nothing to do with men or women trying to achieve great heights. Turns out that poles were – and still are — used to vault canals and the like in Europe, and even ancient Greece before that. There apparently still are pole vaulting competitions in some places where the objective is to vault far rather than high. If you’ve ever vaulted with a pole in your hands, let me know about it at


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