Rick Suhr says he has no use for the spotlight. Can you blame him??In his one big moment on the national stage, he was unfairly vilified for a perceived berating of Jenn Stucyznski after she won a silver medal four years ago in Beijing. People wondered what was the guy's problem.
What they should have been asking was, ‘What's his secret?'
Really, now. Can someone explain it? How in the world could one man have produced so many elite pole vaulters? In an area that has been otherwise irrelevant in major track and field for decades, how could five national pole vaulting champions have come out of one makeshift training facility outside Suhr's home in Churchville.
Is there some unknown coaching technique, some mystical method for inspiring athletes? Some magical jumping beans, perhaps?
"It is a secret," said Jenn Suhr [formerly Stucyznski], who married Rick two years ago. She tells her husband all the time, in fact, that he's the best-kept secret in sports.
"It's amazing what he's done, going back to 2004," she said. "I look at all the records. He's produced a national champion every year. That's too many years and too many people for it to be a coincidence. It all revolves around one person, and that's him."
No, it's hardly a coincidence that three women's pole vaulters from Western New York will be in Eugene, Ore., next weekend at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. Suhr is the defending Olympic silver medalist, a 10-time national champion who is considered a virtual lock to make the American team.
Mary Saxer, who broke the girls' national record seven times at Lancaster High, will be there. So will Medina's Janice Keppler, who vaulted in college at Eastern Michigan and Arkansas and finished second last winter in the indoor U.S. Open at Madison Square Garden.
[JUMP] Suhr, Saxer and Keppler were all ranked among the top 10 in the nation recently. All three got their start in Churchville, where Suhr has been producing champions since putting a couple of quonset huts end-to-end to serve as a pole vaulting practice facility about 15 years ago.
"They all came out of a steel building in Buffalo," Rick said. "That doesn't make sense. I don't care what the records of the Bills and Sabres are. We've got the best pole vaulters in the country, hands down. I don't want to toot my own horn, but it is what it is."
>Jenn is Rick's biggest fan
What it is, Jenn reminds her husband, is a Buffalo story. Suhr Sports might be closer to Rochester, but all three women were Section VI high school athletes. Suhr, who is from Fredonia, is very proud of that. She is also Rick's biggest supporter.
Jenn Suhr always refers to "we" when discussing her pole vaulting. They both say "we." She takes a lot of grief for it. Her PR handlers would prefer she use the first person. But she honestly believes it's a team effort. That's why she was so distressed when people attacked Rick after the final jump in China.
The way she sees it, it was Rick's tough, unsparing coaching that got her to where she is today. Rick is not a terribly popular figure in the sport. He's seen as distant and difficult. So were many of the most successful coaches. He gets results.
"I always say you can know everything about pole vaulting, but you have to know how to coach," Jenn said. "There's a personality and a belief that a coach has to have. He does it in so many ways. Sometimes you don't even realize it. But he's preparing you for every part of the sport, for the meet, for the jump, for life.
"I've gone through plateaus and hard times in my career," she said. "We've gone though that and it's made us even tougher. The secret is really just his ability to coach. He can motivate an athlete. He can make you believe, and he can produce results. A lot of coaches don't have that X factor. That's the way I would put it, he has the X factor."
>Circle of trust and belief
The best coaches inspire belief in their athletes. Rick knows the technical side inside and out. But anyone can buy a video and learn how to vault. In the end, the secret lies in the mental side. Jenn has the physical gifts. She was 6-foot, fast and a leaper, a former college basketball star. But belief was the driving force, the thing that got her to work and persevere. It's belief and confidence that send a vaulter down that runway and over the bar.
Dave Fritz knows the feeling. He was an early protege of Suhr's and finished fifth in the state for Livonia High in 2000. He carried the belief to Virginia Tech, where he was all-Big East three times. Fritz came back to work as Suhr's assistant from 2002-06 and helped develop the remarkable high school vaulters of that time.
Fritz is now the head track and field assistant at William and Mary. He is now the personal coach for Keppler, who assists with the women's pole vaulters. Funny how Suhr's people keep winding up together. Saxer struggled in college, but found herself after Jim Garnham Jr., a former Sweet Home track star who learned the pole vault from Suhr, became her coach.
The circle remains unbroken, and it leads back to one man.
"Rick instills a passion in his athletes," Fritz said. "Vaulting became a really big part of their lives. I wouldn't be coaching now if it weren't for Rick. He made it a priority. Girls were driving two hours from Buffalo to jump three days a week. When you have those values and work ethic, you're going to have success.
"Once it started happening," Fritz said, "it became an expectation. It's like any successful program. You develop positive role models and influences. You develop a system that allows athletes to come in and be almost desensitized to the greater performance."
>Keppler has breakthrough
You see greatness and believe it's possible. As Fritz said, you can see parallels in levels of sport. Look at Keppler. She wasn't the star of her era. Saxer and Tiffany Maskulinski, who broke the national record before Saxer, got the attention. Keppler won a state title and a scholarship to Eastern Michigan. She transferred to Arkansas, an elite program, because she saw herself as elite, as a potential champion and Olympian.
Keppler had a decent college career. She was 17th in the NCAAs as a senior. But she never lost her confidence or her love of the sport. She had a breakthrough in the past year, jumping personal records of 14-6 both indoor and outdoor to gain an invitation to the trials. She's an underdog next weekend, though you wouldn't know from talking to her.
"I don't think of myself that way," Keppler said. "Anyone has an opportunity to jump high on a given day. I've been working really hard and I'm very excited.
"I almost gave it up after college," she said, "because it is a big sacrifice, giving up a career and trying to make ends meet, working minimum wage jobs and geting in the training every day. But every year, I was blessed to get better. I loved it from Day One. There was never a question whether I loved it. Even if I have a bad workout, I love it."
>Suhr fosters love for sport
Fritz said that love for pole vault was engendered out in those quonset huts in Churchville. He said it became like a big, extended family. Suhr was the father figure, giving his students the technical skills and a foundation in competitive character.
"Everybody knows the techical aspects of pole vaulting," Fritz said, "how to develop speed and things like that. From a coaching standpoint it's all kind of the same. I knew all that. From a values and developmental standpoint, Rick taught me to coach."
Fritz said Suhr develops a total trust with his vaulters. It can be a powerful thing when it's a mutual trust. Tim St. Lawrence, who is regarded as the wise old man of pole vaulting in New York, echoed those thoughts.
"I think Jenn believes in him 100 percent," said St. Lawrence, who runs a pole vault camp in Warwick, about 60 miles outside New York City, and has been involved with the sport as an athlete, coach and advocate for half a century. "When an athlete believes in their coach and vice versa, that's a powerful formula.
"Rick Suhr teaches more than the pole vault," St. Lawrence said. "He teaches toughness; this guy was an all-American wrestler in college. He has transformed toughness into all his athletes. It's amazing how rapidly Jenn picked this up. I haven't seen anything quite like this. Jenn is a gifted and talented woman, but deep inside she's a fierce competitor."
St. Lawrence will tell you the Suhrs have soft hearts, too. He started his camp six years ago, when he retired after 35 years of high school coaching. He had 98 kids. Jenn and Rick went to Warwick to help get things off the ground, in more ways than one.
"Here's the American record-holder, helping girls with personal bests of 7-6," St. Lawrence said. "He's the national coach of the year in pole vault. I owe a lot to them. They're giving people. I hope everybody realizes these people are ambassadors of the sport."
But they're fierce competitors, too. Both Fritz and St. Lawrence said the episode in Beijing was blown way out of proportion. Fritz said when Suhr's presumed berating comes up with other people in pole vaulting, they invariably say the sport could use more coaches like him. Anyway, Jenn was more upset than anyone with the animus toward her coach.
>Suhr makes them believers
She didn't get this far by being sensitive to criticism. And while she's happy to see the other Section VI women going to Eugene, when the Trials begin, they'll be the enemy like anyone else. She and Rick are a team, a single-minded entity.
"One time he was giving advice to another vaulter and she had a PR [personal record] the next day," Jenn said. "I said ‘No more advice!' He is definitely in demand. But he's also a very loyal person. He's got an interest in what I'm doing. I laugh and tell him, ‘You're mine for now.' I know how dangerous a coach he is. If he was coaching other athletes, I'd be scared."
He seemed frightful enough on that hot August night in '08. But the people close to him say it was Suhr being honest with his athlete. The only thing that really matters is whether Jenn learned from it. Maybe in London, she'll be tougher for the experience.
"Knowing the things that drive and motivate them, it was a natural reaction," Fritz said. "I asked a lot of the guys I coach with, ‘Do you feel like his actions were unwarranted?' Everyody in coaching world said absolutely not. We need more coaches who react that way to motivate athletes and push them."
The results are undeniable. By now, you would think some country would have offered Suhr big money to share his secret and help their athletes. But he stays put.
"I've been asked to do numerous things," he said. "The bottom line now is, I'm married and my No. 1 goal is to get her to No. 1 in the world. That happened last year. Some day, I may choose to bring on more students and train people again. Or I may get out completely. I personally feel I will get out completely."
It's hard to imagine Suhr giving up a job when he's as good as anyone in the world. How does a man stop when he's spent most of his life making people believe you can always go higher?