Rick Suhr can laugh about it now. But three years ago at this time, Rochester's pole vaulting guru was the most reviled man in track and field. Jenn Stuczynski had won a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics. But when TV cameras captured Suhr criticizing Stuczynski just minutes after her runner-up performance, he was widely accused of berating and bullying his star pupil in front of the world.
Suhr says it probably would have been different if people had known he and Jenn were romantically involved. They're married now. At the time, Jenn was more upset with the public condemnation of Suhr than losing gold to Yelena Isinbayeva. It was devastating to know that even friends in her native Fredonia felt he had abused her in some way.
But six weeks ago, even Rick wondered if he might be bringing harm to his own wife. Jenn -- who now goes by Jenn Suhr -- had been struggling with health issues since winning the national indoor championship in February. She was suffering leg cramps, dehydration and general weakness. She was taking muscle relaxers. She had even dropped out of four meets earlier in the spring.
Late in June, Jenn competed in the USA Outdoor Championships at Eugene, Ore. She was gunning for a sixth straight
national outdoor title. But by the end of the meet, the issue wasn't winning, but simply surviving and finishing high enough to qualify for the World Championships late this month in South Korea.
"We were not fit to jump," Rick said by phone recently. "We had to go there and take top three. I don't think anyone else in the world could have done it, other than Jenn. We knew we had to just survive that weekend. That was our motto: 'Survive and take third.' "
Jenn needed three jumps to clear 14 feet, 9 inches and simply survive qualifying. This is a woman who has jumped 16-2 (4.92 meters), the national record. She needed muscle relaxers to get on the runway and compete.
"Looking back, it really was crazy," Jenn recalled. "To be on relaxers and be that weak. It was like I was just swinging to make the team, to put it all on the line. I remember being upside-down and landing almost off the pad. I didn't know where I was. I was dangerous. I don't know if I'd do that again."
She almost didn't do it at all. The night before the national final, the Suhrs sat in a hotel room, contemplating whether Jenn should withdraw. Rick remembers uttering the words, "It's over. We can't do this."
"The next day, she qualified [for the worlds]," Rick said. "But if I could do it over, I wouldn't put my wife out there in that condition."
Jenn's streak of national titles was at an end. She finished second to Kylie Hutson, who cleared 15-3. Jenn jumped 15-1, normally a height she would breeze past. But considering her compromised physical condition, it felt as if she had vaulted over the Empire State Building.
Her streak was over. Jenn still has 10 national titles, the most of any active American track and field athlete. The bigger issue was finding out exactly what was wrong with her. How could a premier athlete, a woman so dedicated to fitness she was a spokesperson for a vitamin company, turn into such a physical wreck?
A few weeks later, they got the answer. Jenn suffers from celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine. Celiac's main symptoms are chronic diarrhea and fatigue. It's caused by a reaction to gluten, which is found in wheat and other common grains such as barley and rye. The disease interferes with the absorption of nutrients in the intestine. The only effective treatment is a gluten-free diet.
Wimbledon men's champion Novak Djokovic discovered he was allergic to gluten about a year ago. Djokovic's conversion to a gluten-free diet has been credited for his sudden ascendancy to the top of the tennis world. Imagine what the disease does to a person trying to lift her body over a 16-foot bar.
"You lose all your energy and strength," Jenn said. "You just want to lie down. I felt like I was dehydrated all the time. I'm confident now. There's always setbacks to it. You'll eat something without knowing there's gluten in it. But it's controllable now. Things are looking promising again."
Rick Suhr said things are again proceeding according to plan. He said his wife is still improving. Jenn led the world indoors this past winter. Rick said she has been making steady progress in their 4,000-square-foot pole vault-training facility in Churchville, outside Rochester.
Not to get too technical, but Jenn has set personal bests on her shorter approaches. She recently cleared 16 feet off a 12-step run. The normal run is 16 steps. So on faster runways, as she gets healthier, bigger things could be in store.
"This is just a matter of time," Rick said. "We're right where we need to be. She's 29. Most vaulters hit their peak around 30 or 31. When we look at it as a whole, she's won 10 of the last 12 national titles. That's almost mind-boggling. So we have to stay healthy. That's a big factor."
The immediate goal is the World Championships, which will be held Aug. 27-Sept. 4. Jenn will go up against rival Yelena Isinbayeva, the Russian diva who has declared herself the best in the world again after sitting out a year. Isinbayeva has won seven gold medals in international competition, including the last two Olympics.
Two weeks ago at a Diamond League meet in Stockholm, Suhr and Isinbayeva competed in the same event for the first time since China. Isinbayeva announced her return with a winning jump of 4.76 meters (15 feet, 7 inches). Suhr was third at 4.64, or a shade under 15-3.
Jenn was pleased with the result in Sweden, especially after traveling 16 hours on the day before the meet. Surely, being in the same field with Isinbayeva had her looking ahead to South Korea, and to next year's Olympics in London. While she tries to play it down, her rivalry with the Russian is undeniably intense. Her husband spares no hyperbole as he anticipates the rematch.
"You're talking about Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan with Isinbayeva," Rick said. "She is as dominant as any athlete I've seen in any sport. She's shredded the world record. With that in mind, it's not too often you can have the top two all-time compete against each other directly. It's a Rocky Four, it really is."
Jenn traveled to London last week for a Diamond League event. Isinbayeva didn't attend. But Jenn won with a jump of 4.79 meters (15-8 1/2 ). Considering that she could barely walk to the mailbox without cramping up two months ago, it was an encouraging outcome -- precisely one year from the 2012 Olympic pole vault.
"This was a hard-fought battle and could be one of the biggest wins of my career," she said by email. "It means a lot to me to get a win here in the UK. I'm hoping for the same result the next time I'm here in London!"