This is the last in a series of stories profiling the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013.
By Jerry Sullivan
NEWS SENIOR SPORTS COLUMNIST
As a little girl, Jenn Suhr couldn’t have imagined being honored as one of the greatest athletes in Buffalo history. She was thrilled with the honor of having them sign their names on a piece of paper.
Suhr, who was Jenn Stuczynski at the time, grew up on Carroll Avenue in Fredonia, just down the street from Fredonia State. The Bills held their training camp at the college in those days. Jenn and her friends used to head over to practice to meet the players.
“It was a huge deal when they came to town,” Suhr said. “I remember seeing all their shiny cars driving by. We would get out our little autograph pens and ride our bikes down to try to get their autographs.
“I remember one time I was trying to get Jim Kelly’s autograph. I dropped my pen and one of the players stepped on my finger. It was bleeding and I had to run home and get it bandaged. My mom had to fix it.”
That little girl went right back for more, showing the resiliency that would lift her to prominence as the world’s top women’s pole vaulter and the gold medalist at the 2012 Olympics — and earn her induction tonight into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
Suhr has a rare distinction among honorees: She is going into the Buffalo Hall while she is still active in her sport and — in her estimation — still getting better and not at her peak.
“I haven’t peaked yet,” Suhr said. “Not yet, at least.”
Most pole vaulters peak at 30 or 31. But Suhr, who turns 32 in February, came late to the sport. So she hasn’t absorbed as much physical wear and tear as women who took up the grueling sport at a much younger age.
Suhr, whose parents, Mark and Sue, owned a grocery store in Fredonia, was an athlete from the start. She picked up golf young and competed in an adult league with her grandfather when she was 9. She was a multi-sport star in school and won the state high school championship in the pentathlon when she was a senior.
At Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, she starred in basketball and track and field. In 2003-04, Suhr, who is 6-feet, averaged 24 points a game and led the school to the National Christian College Association title game. She graduated as Roberts Wesleyan’s career women’s scoring leader with 1,819 points.
Rick Suhr, a former state wrestling champ and high school pole vaulter, noticed Jenn playing pickup basketball with the boys. Suhr, who had begun training young pole vaulters at a makeshift facility outside his home in Churchville, felt Jenn had the perfect physical makeup for the pole vault. Even more so, he liked her “persistence and toughness.”
Reluctantly, Jenn agreed. Six weeks after touching a pole for the first time, she was sixth in the NAIA Championships. A year, later, she won the U.S. national indoor title. She took off like a rocket, piling up the national titles and emerging as a world contender.
In May of 2008, Suhr became the first American woman to clear 16 feet. She has 13 national records. She holds the U.S. indoor and outdoor records, and this past year set a world indoor record of 5.02 meters (16.47 feet).
Four years after taking up pole vaulting, Suhr won a silver medal in the Olympics at Beijing. In 2012, she finally became No. 1 in the world, then beat her long-time Russian nemesis, two-time Olympic champ Yelena Isinbayeva, for the gold medal in London.
Along the way, life kept stomping on her hand. Suhr found out she had celiac disease, which weakened her physically and forced her to change her diet. She battled a variety of injuries. One month before the U.S. Olympic trials in ‘12, she tore her quadriceps muscle, putting her spot in danger. She gutted it out and qualified with just two jumps.
In London, swirling winds made conditions difficult for the vaulters. Suhr persevered. She won the gold with a jump that would not have medaled in China. Before the competition, she said pole vaulting was a game of survival. She felt she had won because she was the most resilient one out there — tough and enduring, like her hometown.
“Yeah, it’s a tough area,” she said. “I think people who have grown up in Western New York deal with things a little bit better. It’s almost like the weather makes people tougher, because you’re used to things being thrown at you. You’re constantly dealing with crises and change, and you have to stay mentally tough through the whole thing.
“You can have a fall or spring sports season where there’s snow on the ground, not like Texas or Florida. Athletes who compete there understand.”
Soon after taking up pole vaulting, Suhr made up a list of the top females vaulters in the world. She checked off their names, one by one, when she beat them. Isinbayeva was the last name on the list. You wondered, after London, if Jenn might call it quits.
But she never considered it. Suhr hasn’t lost an ounce of her competitive will. The younger women, like Britain’s 21-year-old Holly Bleasdale, are checking her name now. Isinbayeva isn’t done, either. She won the world championship in her native Russia last summer at 31. Suhr was second.
“It was the first time I’ve been booed,” Suhr said,. “They booed when I was announced and when I was about to jump. Track and Field News asked me about it. I said, ‘Oh, I’ve been at a Bills-Dolphins game, so I know what it’s about.’”
Suhr feels like the Bills’ Fred Jackson, an athlete who arrived late to the big time and was spared some physical punishment as a result. So it’s all systems go. After taking a month or so off after the worlds, she is ready to resume full training. She and Rick fully intend to defend the Olympic title in Rio de Janiero three years from now.
“That’s our plan, to go to Rio,” she said. “There is no reason why not. Right now, my training hasn’t even started in terms of pole vaulting. But my strength numbers are right where they should be. That’s a testament to Rick’s training and progression over the years.
“I’ve been pole vaulting for what, eight years? That’s like four years of high school and four of college. I didn’t really start lifting until I was 22 and the strength kept accumulating and things got easier. I’m like, ‘This is nice, I’m 31 and still seeing gains in my training.’ ”
Suhr says she hasn’t lost her motivation. She has been to the top of the world. But she still comes bouncing off the mat with the enthusiasm of a young girl. She is convinced she can soar even higher and that, even for a Hall of Famer, the best is yet to come.
The Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame’s 23rd induction dinner will be held tonight at the Hyatt Regency Ballroom. Cost is $85 per person or $750 for a table of 10. Visit buffalosportshallfame.com/awards-dinner-tickets.