RIO DE JANEIRO –The last words Jenn Suhr uttered Monday afternoon, in a hoarse, barely audible whisper, was that she intended to “take care of business.” Sick or not, respiratory distress and all, she was confident she would get the job done.
It’s that resilient quality that has defined Suhr in an eight-year career that has seen her won 17 national championships, a gold and silver Olympic medal, and become ranked No. 1 in the world twice after reaching the age of 30.
All manner of injuries, celiac disease, Suhr has battled through it all, and she generally manages to be at her best when the chips are down. And she did it again. One day after her husband, Rick, was moved to tears by seeing her sick on the eve of the Olympics, Suhr found the strength and will to qualify for the Olympic final.
Suhr, who had needed only one vault to qualify in London, had to jump twice Tuesday morning in the Olympic Stadium. She passed all the way to 4.55 meters (14 feet, 11 inches), figuring that might be enough to make the top 12 and qualifying without another attempt.
But when 15 other women cleared 4.55 meters, there remained a chance that she could fail to advance. So after lying on the floor of the stadium, close to exhaustion, Suhr got back up and cleared 4.60 meters (15-1.1) and qualified with ease.
The amazing thing was, she felt even worse than she had the day before. “Actually, today is the low point,” Suhr said, her voice slightly better than it had been on Monday. “Yeah, today is probably the worst that I’ve felt. I can deal with the respiratory. It’s the dizziness and always feeling like I’m going to throw up when I have to cough that’s tough.
“You go out there with nerves and everything, and no appetite. So it’s just a battle right now.”
The battle is especially daunting at an Olympics. Coaches can’t be in the pole vault pit with their athletes at the Games. They have to sit in the lower stands and communicate by shouting and giving hand signals.
Rick Suhr despises the setup. He was unhappy before the event because there was a big red box obscuring his view of Jenn’s “midpoint,” the spot on the runway that lets a coach know where his vaulter is taking off. She said the midpoint or “midcheck” sets up her entire vault.
With 38 women in an Olympic field, they run two qualifying groups side by side. Jenn said there wasn’t coordination between the two sides in warmups, which resulted in her B group getting fewer warmups. Rick was irate before, during and after qualifying about the shoddy setup and said the IOC needs to find a better way.
The announcements in the stadium left something to be desired, too. They never announced when Suhr, the defending Olympic gold medalist, was about to make her first jump. Even worse, they were silent when Brazil’s Fabiana Murer, the home favorite and formerly the world’s top-ranked vaulter, made her first attempt in Rio.
Murer can’t have been too inspired. She no-heighted and didn’t qualify. That shows you how capricious pole vaulting can be. Favorites flame out all the time in qualifying; it’s that unpredictable and dicey a proposition.
“Qualifiers are always tough,” Jenn said. “Everything’s different in qualifiers. Nineteen girls on two runways? That’s ridiculous. You saw it out there. It’s nuts. You get through and breathe a sigh of relief, because bad things happen.”
Suhr was one of three women who passed all the way to 4.55. Rick felt if she cleared that height, she wouldn’t have to jump again. But when she came over toward the stands, Rick asked how she felt. “Why?” she asked. “You don’t think 4.55 gets in?”
“No,” he said.
“I did not want to jump one more bar,” Suhr said. “I was done. I wanted to be done. I wanted to go home and recover.”
Instead, she went out and cleared 4.60, the automatic Olympic qualifying height, with plenty to spare, hardly looking like a woman who was battling dizziness, fever, a respiratory condition and operating on little sleep.
Rick sat the stands, expressionless, after she made the qualifying jump. I had to walk over and tell him it was OK to smile. He was still upset with the operation of the pole vault, and also a bit awestruck by what his wife had done.
“We’re at best 50 percent,” he said. “She’s laying down there on the infield sleeping, dead sick tired. Jenn’s probably the only one who could have done that. By far, one of the most courageous efforts that she’s ever put forward.
“But bottom line, that’s Jenn. She’s jumped in probably 10 world and Olympic qualifiers and she’s always qualified through to the finals. She’s never missed a final, which is incredible, if you think about it.”
As it turned out, eight women cleared 4.60 to qualify automatically. Only four of the eight who cleared 4.55 got in – including American Sandi Morris – based on fewest misses. So Suhr could have qualified without taking that extra jump, but she couldn’t afford to take the chance in the moment.
There’s always drama where the Suhrs are concerned.
Remember the flap about him “berating her” in Beijing after Jenn won silver. Seeing what it’s like for coaches at an Olympics, you get a deeper understanding for what they go through in a competition, and why they might have to yell to get their point across.
Now she gets three days’ rest before the Friday night final. By then, maybe the illness will fade and she’ll be back in good health. Rick said she was good enough to qualify at 50 percent, but needs to be at 80 to win another gold. She can’t afford to have her health decline any further.
“Today is the first day I felt hot,” she said, “just extremely hot. Taking off clothes and getting cold and putting them back on and taking them off. Today was the first day I would say that something internally didn’t feel right.
“Glad I’m through. We live another day.”