The Buffalo News polled sports staffers as to the top 10 male and female athletes from Western New York. Here’s the unanimous No. 1 choice among women:
Name: Jenn Suhr.
Sport: Pole vault.
High school: Fredonia.
College: Roberts Wesleyan.
Born: Feb. 5, 1982.
Career overview: Suhr, born Jenn Stuczynski, didn’t begin pole vaulting until she was 22. Rick Suhr, a former New York high school champion wrestler and rising pole vault coach, noticed her playing pickup basketball at Roberts Wesleyan College and saw the makings of an elite vaulter. Strong and agile at 6-feet-0, Stuczynski took instantly to the sport and was a national champion less than a year later. … She became the greatest women’s pole vaulter in U.S. history, winning 16 indoor and outdoor national titles. She holds the world indoor record of 5.03 meters (16 feet, 6 inches) and has been ranked No. 1 in the world the last two years. She holds the American record both indoors and outdoors and has the 14 highest jumps in U.S. history. … In 2008, she won a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics. Four years later, she captured gold in London, beating longtime Russian nemesis Yelena Isinbayeva. She married Suhr, her coach, in 2010. Suhr won her 16th national title this past June.
Younger days: Suhr grew up in Fredonia, the daughter of Mark and Sue Stuczynski, who owned a grocery store. Jenn, who rode her bike to Bills training camp at nearby Fredonia State to get autographs, played all sports as a girl. … She began playing softball at age 6 and played in adult golf leagues with her grandfather, “Bunk,” when she was 9. “He says he carried my bag and I’d do cartwheels,” she said. “It was a fun time.” … At Fredonia High, she competed in softball, soccer, basketball and track. As a senior, she captured the state pentathlon title. Suhr starred in basketball and track at Roberts Wesleyan. She averaged 24.3 points and 6.7 rebounds as a senior in 2003-04, leading Roberts Wesleyan to the NCCAA title game. She left as the leading scorer in school history with 1,819 career points.
The Natural: Rick Suhr had begun training pole vaulters in a converted quonset hut outside his home in Churchville when he met Jenn in 2004. He felt she had the ideal physical makeup for the vault. He was right. He quickly learned she had the “persistence and toughness” that separate elite athletes from wannabes. Six weeks after picking up a pole for the first time, she was sixth at the NAIA Championships. One year later, she was U.S. national indoor champ. In 2006, she won the U.S. outdoor title. In ’07, she broke Stacy Dragila’s U.S. outdoor record with a jump of 4.84 meters (15-11), then jumped 16 feet later in the year, second all-time behind Isinbayeva.
“I laugh when people say Jenn was this great natural athlete,” Rick Suhr said. “I’ve been around a lot of athletes who had a good amount of potential. It’s just that she maximized it. She took advantage of it. There’s lots of people who have the same potential. But who does it? There’s a mental toughness to her, an obsessiveness that made her go beyond everybody else.”
Beijing Olympics: In 2008, Suhr was the main challenger to Isinbayeva, the defending Olympic champion and world record-holder. Jenn predicted she would “kick some Russian butt,” a quote she came to regret when the media used it to inflate a rivalry between the two. In China, she finished second to Isinbayeva, missing four times at 4.9 meters to win silver. Isinbayeva reveled in her win and took shots at Jenn, chiding her for talking too much. But the biggest criticism was heaped on Rick Suhr, whose blunt critique of Jenn after her last jump was broadcast on NBC and caused a stir on social media and among Jenn’s fans back in Fredonia. She was philosophical about finishing second and more upset with the overreaction toward her future husband.
“When you attack my coach, you attack me, too,” she said. “It’s a relationship, a coach and an athlete. That’s the part that bothered me. We have worked so hard to come this far and they’re pinpointing one person. It’s two people. It’s unfortunate that the cameras didn’t see the celebration afterward, or the encouragement he gives me.”
Physical struggles: Pole vaulting is a grueling sport, one Rick compared with playing linebacker. Jenn has suffered her share of injuries, but the biggest obstacle in her career was a battle with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine that causes chronic fatigue. Suhr discovered she had celiac after finishing second in the U.S. outdoors in 2011, ending her streak of 10 straight national titles. She was so compromised by illness, she barely made it through the event. Jenn went on a gluten-free diet and slowly returned to peak form. Rick said she was only 80 percent when she won a big Diamond Meet title later in 2011. In January 2012, after the most difficult season of her career, Jenn was ranked No. 1 in the world for the first time.
Jenn on the physical demands of her sport: “Every sport has its challenges, but pole vaulting combines it all. Every part of your body is used. That’s why I don’t shoot hoops anymore. I don’t even swing a golf club during the season in case I hit the ground and hurt my back. Everything is needed, from my fingers all the way to my toes. I can’t vault if something’s broken.”
London calling: On the flight over to the 2012 Summer Olympics, Rick Suhr gazed at his wife and was close to tears. “She’s healthy,” he thought. “She’s finally healthy and she’s not sick.” At 100 percent, in her prime at 30, she was ready to upset Isinbayeva and win gold. She did it, surviving a war of attrition in brutal London winds to nip Cuba’s Yarisley Silva. Both cleared 4.75 meters on the final night, but Jenn had fewer misses. Isinbayeva settled for bronze. Taking Rick’s advice, Jenn had skipped the earlier heights in qualifying and needed only one jump, which preserved her energy for the final. Rick, never one to shy away from hyperbole, compared it to the U.S. hockey team’s Miracle on Ice in 1980.
It takes two: When talking about her achievements, Jenn often says “we,” as if Rick were going over the bar with her. But it’s very much a dual effort. Rick is one of the best pole vault coaches in the world. Three of his former pupils made it to Olympic qualifying in 2012.
“Yeah, it’s such a team effort,” Jenn said. “There’s so much that goes on from the time of warmups. People think that I get to the track and I’m in competition. But he makes adjustments on what height to come in, my grips, my poles, things like that. There’s things he sees I don’t see, and things I feel that he doesn’t see. So it’s a communication that goes back and forth. It’s matured me as a vaulter.”
After London: Team Suhr has suffered more ups and downs since London. She became No. 1 in the world and now has the most national titles of any active U.S. track and field athlete. In 2013, she was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. In August 2014, she was hurt during practice when her carbon pole snapped, causing injuries to her wrist, hand, ribs, neck and shoulder. This past March, she withdrew from the U.S. indoors with a bruised heel and Achilles tendinitis.
But once again, Jenn bounced back. In June, she won her ninth national outdoor title and 16th overall in Eugene, Ore. Her jump of 15-9.75 was the highest in the world last year. It qualified her for the World Championships, where she finished fourth.
The big bounce back came last month, during the Brockport Golden Eagle Multi and Invitational, when she added a centimeter to her world indoor record, clearing 5.03 meters.
“I think it’s just a case where she’s been ready to jump,” Rick Suhr said. “She had the highest jump in the world in December, and the highest jump in January, and now this.
“We’re in great shape. It’s a week before her 34th birthday, and this is higher than she’s ever gone.”
Road to Rio: In August, at 34, Jenn will attempt to repeat as Olympic champ in Rio de Janeiro. She will face a formidable field that will include Brazil’s Fabiana Murer, who won the 2011 world title.
“Rio is the real jackpot,” Rick said. “I think the focus will be different on Jenn as defending Olympic champ. And Fabiana Murer, she’s a rock star down there. It’s going to be crazy, especially if Isinbayeva comes back. I’m telling you, it could very easily turn into the biggest event of the Olympic Games.”
Jenn, a unanimous choice as the No. 1 female athlete from the Buffalo area, said she’s excited for the chance at a Rio repeat. “I am. The last couple of years, it seems like I’ve been fighting back. I’m getting back to where I feel like myself again.”