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Jenn Suhr vows to continue in pole vault

NORTH CHILI - Pole vaulter Jenn Suhr and her husband Rick Suhr, who is also her coach, had said before the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero that Jenn would continue to compete in her specialty after the Games' completion.

The Suhrs repeated that vow during a nearly hour-long news conference at Roberts Wesleyan College outside of Rochester on Tuesday. That's in spite of the fact that a nasty respiratory ailment she contracted in Brazil cost her the chance to defend her gold medal. Jenn Suhr plans to go back to training and prepare for next year's World Championships in London.

"I wasn't willing to give up on it. I was jumping too well going into the Olympics to give up on it," Jenn Suhr said. "I still have a lot of fire left in me."

At 34, Jenn might be considered a few years past her peak as a pole vaulter. That will be even more true in 2020, when she is 38 and the Olympic Games will be held in Tokyo. But Rick Suhr said the two of them have seen no sign of a physical decline.

"The biggest measurement through what the laser tell me about her speed and strength," he said. "The pole tells how much power she has, and I see no compromise at all on her speed and power. There's no reason why she can't jump near what's she's capable of. If these things showed that she was slowing down, I'd say she might have a year left. But I've seen absolutely no indication of that."

Even if Jenn Suhr plans to continue to compete at a world-class level from this point, she and her coach plan to take a slightly different approach in the future. It sounds as if the single-minded pursuit of Olympic glory - which has rewarded her with a gold and silver medal over the years - has taken a toll.

"I'm not going to do what I did for the last four years," she said. "I'll compete, and we're thinking four more years, but it's not going to be as much heartache. It has to be fun. I put too much into this."

"She asked on the plane home, "What if I had won? Would it have been worth it?' " Rick Suhr said. "I couldn't answer that yet. Even if she had won a gold medal, it wasn't worth the turmoil in our lives. ... I went 10 months without seeing my kids. I put everything I had into winning a gold medal. Finding balance is important. We were out fighting for dollars and doing what's needed to train properly. We have to find that balance."

At the news conference, Rick Suhr reviewed the timeline of the Olympics, which started upon arrival in Rio when Jenn felt great and at the peak of her abilities. On August 11, she became sick with what was thought to be a head cold but soon became more ill. Jenn managed to get through qualifying on August 16, but was no better the next day.

"She was real sick then, and I knew it was over," Rick Suhr said about the quest for a second straight gold medal. "By the 19th," when the finals were held, "she was coughing up blood and vomiting.

"I thought the NBC coverage was embarrassing. They never even acknowledged that she was sick. ... Jenn had earned the right to be covered."

Complicating the situation was the fact that the list of banned substances is a long and complicated one. It's difficult to know what medicines can be taken in such situations without the possibility of failing a drug test.

"When she was sick and they gave her an inhaler, I still couldn't sleep," Rick Suhr said. "I had to decide if she should use an inhaler to help her and maybe pop a test, or maybe not be here in the morning. So I had her hit the inhaler. That's not fair to the athlete.

"It's a real disadvantage for the Americans right now. We're very harshly tested, which is a good thing. But there are maybe only five countries that test to this standard. ... We can't even get a multivitamin that's approved."

Rick Suhr said he tried to convince Jenn not to even try a third jump after two misses in the finals, but she insisted and came up short to finish in a tie for seventh. Jenn then went through the media zone for interviews, but broke down crying after a minute.

"People see me crying over a sport, but this is not a game," said Jenn. "My health insurance is at stake. My contracts ride off this. This is how I make a living. It's like being fired. ... This isn't something I do as a hobby."

Such disappointments are part of the risk in competing in a sport that Americans watch closely only at the Olympics. Become ill at the wrong time, and four years of work can go down the drain. Suhr has seen doctors since returning to the United States, and they only can say the virus that struck her is unlike what they have seen in North America.

About the only silver lining to all of this is that Western New York showed its support for Jenn in large numbers. It was a different reaction than the one that came with the gold medal in 2012, and maybe it was more touching.

"In 2012, I never felt like I won it for myself; I felt like I won it for everyone else," she said. "This time I felt like I lost it for everyone else, and that's why it was so hard. But the support is what gets you through. It's the letters from kids, adults. It's people reaching out. That's when I knew I was loved. That's what makes me love this area."

Rick Suhr appealed to Western New York businesses for financial backing through sponsorships for the next Olympic cycle. He hopes that this setback will make her even more marketable, arguing that her attempt to rebound after the Rio Games will make her an even more attractive story going forward from this point.

In the meantime, Jenn Suhr - who started to work out again just before Labor Day - will stage a pair of exhibitions in the next few weeks. She and some other area vaulters will take part at Roberts Wesleyan College's homecoming on Sept. 23 between 4 and 6 p.m. The same group also will vault on Main St. in Jenn's native Fredonia on Oct. 1 between 5 and 7 p.m.

"We've had about 1,500 people send notes, letters and emails, and many of them asked if Jenn was going to jump again on another Gold Medal Tour," like she did in 2012," Rick Suhr said. "It gives the entire community an opportunity to come out, see Jenn and meet Jenn."

In the meantime, Suhr had a message for her fans in the area.

"I'm not contagious!" she said. "People will see me and say, 'You're Jenn Suhr, right?' and then move all their groceries to the back of the car. I was coughing up a storm in the back of a drug store, and all of a sudden everyone was gone. There could have been tumbleweeds coming down."

email: bbailey@buffnews.com

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