RIO DE JANEIRO − On Tuesday morning in the Olympic Stadium, Fredonia native Jenn Suhr will attempt to lift herself over the bar and begin the process of defending her gold medal by qualifying for the final in the women’s pole vault.
But first, Suhr will have to lift herself out of bed, which might not be such an easy process after all she’s been through over the past two or three days here in Rio.
The best female pole vaulter in U.S. history is suffering from an undetermined virus − likely some sort of bacterial infection − that has made it difficult for her to breathe or speak and will compromise her ability to vault Tuesday.
“Two days ago, she started feeling a little funny,” her husband and coach, Rick Suhr, said Monday at their hotel in San Cristo on the north edge of the city. “Then Sunday, it started kicking in pretty good.
“I said, ‘Jenn, you’re sick,’ and she was denying it. She won’t admit she’s sick, because if she admits she’s sick, then she knows she’s compromised. Then (Sunday) night, she said, ‘Look, I’m not feeling well.’ ”
Rick could tell the issue was respiratory in nature. Jenn was badly congested and stuffed up and having trouble breathing. He said it seemed like pneumonia. The doctor who traveled with them to Rio put her on a regimen of antibiotics.
Early Monday afternoon, the doctors didn’t have a specific diagnosis. Rick said U.S. Olympic doctors would examine Jenn later in the day at the local naval center where they’ve been training. Hopefully, it was a bacterial infection that could be cleared up by antibiotics.
“But I don’t know,” he said. “It’s kicking her pretty good. This morning she virtually lost her voice and she could barely talk.”
That was confirmed a few minutes later when Jenn came to the hotel lobby for a brief chat. She looked pale and drawn, hardly the vibrant, glowing athlete who has dominated American pole vaulting the last eight years and won gold in London.
She spoke in a raspy and barely audible whisper, like some frail, elderly matron telling secrets to the grandchildren.
“I can barely talk,” she said. “It’s like a hoarse whisper. I just don’t know what it is I came down with. It actually hurts to talk ’cause you have to push so hard in your stomach, so that’s why I haven’t been talking. I have to save my abs for the swing.”
In less than 24 hours, she was scheduled to compete in the qualifying round of the women’s pole vault. At 9:30 a.m. Rio time, the process of winnowing a field of 36 female vaulters down to a final dozen will begin.
There’s no telling how effective Jenn, 34, will be. Rick says a jump of 15-1 (4.6 meters) should be enough to qualify. That would be a snap for Jenn under normal conditions. A week ago, she felt ready to jump her best. Now, she could literally fall on her face.
“People ask if we’re going to jump and I say, ‘She’ll crawl down the runway if she has to,’ ” Rick said. “Because you’ve got no choice. Four years, that’s a long time. That’s a lot of workouts, a lot of blood, sweat and tears lost. You’ve got to go.”
The illness was hard to accept because they were so prepared for Rio. They understood the various health risks and did everything possible to guard against illness.
“We’re staying away from people,” Rick said. “We’re avoiding shaking hands. We’re hand-sanitizing all the time. We’re so careful about what we eat. The majority of what we eat, we brought with us. But sometimes, you just have some bad luck and you get hit with it. But we have qualifying tomorrow at 9 o’clock in the morning.
“All of a sudden, a 15-foot bar looks awful high.”
Of course, Jenn Suhr’s story has been one of overcoming adversity. She’s battled through a variety of injuries. Five years ago, she found out she had celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine that is caused by gluten. She made the dietary adjustments necessary and returned to top form.
She is the top female pole vaulter in U.S. history. Jenn has won 17 national titles, the most of any active American track and field performer. She holds the world indoor record of 5.03 meters (16 feet, 6 inches) and was No. 1 in the world in 2014 and ’15. Suhr holds the U.S. indoor and outdoor records.
“We’ve battled a lot of things,” Rick said, “but never sick-sick. That’s one thing we haven’t had to do. The scary thing is, it’s not getting better, it’s getting worse. Yesterday, I’m like, ‘Well, it’s going to get better.’ This morning, I knew we had a problem. I’m like, ‘We’re in trouble now.’ ”
Four years ago, on the flight over to London for the 2012 Games, Rick looked at his wife and was overcome by the realization that, after all the physical setbacks, she was finally in top shape for an Olympic pole vault competition.
“She’s healthy. She’s finally healthy and she’s not sick,” Rick thought to himself that day. He turned and looked out the window of the plane that day and nearly started crying.
Four years later, he was moved to tears for the opposite reason. Again, Jenn had rounded into peak form, recovered from calf and Achilles injuries she’d suffered at the world indoors in March. The experts, who picked against her in London, were expecting her to lose the throne. But he felt she would be the top vaulter here.
“Yeah, I knew that she ...” Suhr paused, took a breath. He was sobbing. “This is a hard one, cause I know she’s hurtin’. She’s hurtin’ bad.
“It’s like I’m living with an 80-year-old woman. She’s coughing so bad throughout the night. She has no voice left and I know how weak she is. She hasn’t even slept. You say to yourself, ‘There’s other people with a lot worse situations out there,’ but this is our situation right now.
“We were feeling so good a week ago. It’s a helpless feeling, because there’s nothing I can do. All I can do is go through the motions. You sit there thinking, ‘Hopefully, tomorrow, we feel better.’ ”
It is always “we” with these two. Jenn says “we” after winning, as if Rick had gone over the bar with her. They share everything. But he cannot take her illness, and he cannot go down that runway Tuesday morning and feel what it’s like to plant that pole against your chest when it hurts so much you can barely speak.
“I apologize for coming a little unglued,” he said. “It’s just hard.”
He said if anyone can fight through this and prevail, it’s Jenn. When morning comes and it’s competition day, they become warriors. There’s no other way.
“That’s it,” he said. “You draw the line in the sand and say ‘Here we go.’ That’s exactly it.”
Jenn said she couldn’t afford to dwell on tough circumstances. She and Rick sat in their room Monday morning, watching “Friends” reruns and acting as if everything were perfectly normal, even the pain in her stomach when she laughed.
“I can’t think about it,” she whispered. “That’s what we were just talking about. It’s just normal stuff. I mean, it’s unfortunate, but I’m not thinking about it. I’m going to go out there and take care of business.”