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Fighting through illness to compete, Suhr comes up short

Jerry Sullivan

RIO DE JANEIRO – Rick Suhr has been known to dramatize at times. He compared his wife’s gold medal performance in London four years ago to the USA hockey team’s Miracle on Ice. He likened her rivalry with Yelena Isinbayeva to Ali-Frazier.

But Rick wasn’t exaggerating this time. Last Monday, when he revealed that Jenn was suffering from a nasty respiratory ailment that would make it nearly impossible for her to defend her Olympic pole vault title, he wasn’t embellishing.

He knew her illness was getting worse, not better. He knew Jenn, and he knew better than anyone what it took to win a major international pole vault championship. Rick also knows women’s pole vaulting as well as anyone alive, and he had enough regard for a rising young Olympic field to know Jenn’s chances to win when sick were slim indeed.

Rick Suhr’s worst fears came to pass Friday night when Jenn failed on four of her five jumps and finished in seventh place – tied with Cuba’s Yarisley Silva, who had finished second to her four years earlier in London.

For anyone who had watched Suhr perform in the past, and knew what a fierce competitor the Fredonia native has been over the last eight years, it was tough to watch. It was clear on her three successive misses at 4.70 meters, a height she would normally clear in her sleep, that Jenn wasn’t physically up to the task.

“After warmups I thought, ‘OK, I’m on,’ ” Suhr said in the mixed zone after exiting the competition. “I had the bungee at 4.90 meters and made it huge. I was like ‘I’m on.’ And then after warmups, it was like everything just shut down. My muscles, I’ve never had them shake and give out like they have been.”

Her health had been that way for eight days, sinister and unpredictable. First it was chest pain, then dizziness and fever. On Friday, she woke up coughing blood.

“I don’t know what it is,” she said. “They think respiratory, but now they’re thinking in the lungs. It’s non-stop. This morning I was coughing up blood and it just is getting scary and, I don’t know.

“It’s just all over. Dizziness, always in the chest, can’t breathe. I mean, I threw up twice out there. It’s just getting ridiculous, so I don’t know what it is, but I’m getting, uh, nervous. I just want to get out of here and go home and figure it out.”

That’s how Rick sounded on his Facebook post early Friday afternoon, like a coach and husband who was ready to go home. It was part concession speech, part homage to Jenn for having the courage to even try to win a medal in her condition.

“The result won’t matter today,” he wrote. “But this will be our greatest Olympic effort. Let’s all watch and appreciate what Jenn is willing to go through to represent America. I told her no matter how tough or ugly this is, you already won by being a great Olympic champion. I ask all her supporters to not expect anything today.”

He knew what was coming. Rick can be cold and suspicious, but he’s a pole vault savant. He said Greece’s Ekaterini Stefanidi was the woman to beat. She won gold. He felt Silva was not at her best. Silva tied Jenn for seventh. And of course, he knew Jenn was in trouble against this field.

Jenn was in tough shape from the start. She missed her first try at 4.60 meters (15-1), which she had cleared with ease in qualifying. Watching Suhr’s legs collide with the bar at 4.60, you knew she wasn’t nearly at top form. Everyone loves a storybook finish. Suhr rising above her illness and winning was the kind of story you dream of at an Olympics.

She cleared 4.60, barely, on her second try to move on. There were six other women still alive at that point, standing between Suhr and a medal – never mind gold.

The bar went to 4.70 and again Suhr missed on her first attempt. Considering the week she’s had – sick for eight of her 11 days in Brazil – you had to wonder how much energy she had left.

Just after her fellow American, Sandi Morris, soared over 4.70 meters, Suhr, 34, missed again. This time, it wasn’t even close. The difference between her jumps and those of the younger, healthier woman was stark and difficult to watch.

“I kept moving my mark up, because I couldn’t get to the box, moving it up,” she said, her voice breaking. “It is such a crappy feeling to know you worked four years for this to happen. It’s embarrassing, too.”

It made her look old, like she was passing the torch to younger vaulters. Morris, who won silver, is 10 years her junior at 24. Eliza McCartney of New Zealand, the bronze medalist, is only 19.

But this wasn’t about age, but rotten luck. Back in June, during a press conference in their training facility in Churchville, Jenn had bristled when Rick said she was in her twilight. She was jumping as well as ever. It wasn’t twilight time.

That should make her even more determined to come back and prove herself for at least another year or two. Physically, they felt she was primed to win again here. As Rick said, she’s been a true champion, perhaps more noble in defeat this week than she was while winning 17 national titles and an Olympic gold medal.

Now we’ll never know how she might have done in Rio if she had been healthy. It could have been the best day in Buffalo’s Olympic history, with Suhr and Matt Anderson in position to clinch medals on the same day, which would be a local first.

But at around the time the U.S. men’s volleyball team was blowing leads and losing to Italy in the semifinals, Rick Suhr was posting the ominous news about Jenn’s worsening physical condition.

“I just feel bad,” Jenn said, sobbing in the mixed zone. “I feel bad that I couldn’t do it for everyone back home.”

Then, in tears, she was gone, before anyone could tell her that Buffalo has never been prouder.


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