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How North Tonawanda came upon a pole vaulting champion

The phrase "fell out of the sky" can be used to describe something completely unexpected.

It also describes what happens to a pole vaulter after he reaches the top of his jump.

They both fit with the story of Anton Kunnas, who came to North Tonawanda High School last autumn as an exchange student from Finland and who has made a huge impact on track and field in the region. Kunnan has gone from unknown to standout in the pole vault in virtually no time at all - the proverbial "overnight sensation."

"I haven't experienced anything like it in my career," coach Kevin Wartinger of the Lumberjacks said.

Kunnas won the Section VI and New York State indoor titles in the pole vault in the winter. Now in outdoor competition, he's gone 2 feet higher than anyone else in the area.

If that weren't enough, he's also the fastest runner in Section VI in the 400-meter hurdles.

"You can't tell it by looking at him, but yeah, he's an outstanding athlete," teammate and fellow hurdler Ed Gath said.

Kunnas completed his first fall out of the sky several years ago in his home country.

"My first pole vault was more than five years ago," the 18-year-old said. "It just got more and more serious for the past few years.

"First you have to learn to land on the pit, so you won't hurt yourself. Then you have to hang on to the pole. Gradually, you increase the height and get over the bar."

(Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

After a couple of years, the Finn looked around and he realized he was doing quite well.

"I was about 14 then," he said. "I just realized that I enjoyed it a lot and wanted to get better, so I started practicing more."

Kunnas grew up in Sipoo, Finland, about 30 minutes by car outside of Helsinki. He decided to spend a year of high school as an exchange student. Kunnas' English is excellent; he is also fluent in Finnish and Swedish.

"Basically, they were looking for host families anywhere in the U.S.," he said. "I remember getting the email that said you have a possible host family in the Northeast United States. I was like, 'OK, anywhere in those 10 states sounds cool.' Then I ended up here."

Kunnas hadn't heard of North Tonawanda before finding out he'd spent most of a year there. But he discovered it was close to Niagara Falls - he had heard of that.

The newcomer didn't know much about the structure of high school sports in America when he tried out for the NT cross country team in the fall. That's where Wartinger first saw him.

"It was an NFL cross country meet," he said. "I came out to support the track kids. I was told we had an exchange student, but I hadn't heard anything about it. He was one of the leaders of the race, and that's kind of amazing. Distance running and pole vaulting are very different muscle systems. He's just very good at everything."

What do you do as a coach when an outstanding pole vaulter falls out of the sky and onto your team? Ask for help.

"I sent emails and calls to everyone I could," Wartinger said with a chuckle. "I don't have any background specifically in the pole vault, so I called on friends from college and teammates.

"We set goals when he got here. We had conversations about what he wanted to accomplish. ... He came in with a PR (personal record) around 15-5. We got him to 15-6 in indoor and a state championship, so he accomplished all the things we wanted to do."

Just like that, Kunnas became a story - "Finland's gift to North Tonawanda is state's best." It was a little overwhelming. High school athletes back in Europe belong to clubs that hold practices and events right after school, and it's a more anonymous system at that stage of life.

"In Finland, we don't get honored as much," he said. "Here, I got so much attention and love. I'm in the news and everything. I never expected it to be such a big thing. When I left Finland, I thought the big thing was that I'd get to practice. Now, I have the experience of being part of the school team."

Word about Kunnas even has spread back to Sipoo. His father found a story online about Anton even before his son saw it.

(Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Now it's spring, and Kunnas is gearing up for the climax of the current season. You may have noticed that it hasn't been a good few weeks for pole vaulting - or almost anything else outside.

"The wind is more of a problem than the rain," Wartinger said. "We had a meet with Tonawanda, and by the time he was ready to jump at the end, they had to cancel the pole vault because of wind. He was getting to his mark too quickly, and that throws everything off. Once you plant, you're not able to continue your vault to maximum height. You might think the wind at your back would give you more speed and help you, but it doesn't."

So Kunnas practices when and where he can, sometimes finding indoor facilities for workouts. Plus he still has to train for the hurdles.

"Usually I'm one of the last people here, but he's still working when I'm packing up," Gath said. "His form is absolutely perfect."

Kunnas will take a bow at North Tonawanda's graduation ceremony next month, even though he has two more years of school waiting for him in Finland. Kunnas has to make up for the year he missed by coming to America, and then has one more year after that. He'll certainly continue to work on his vaulting and find out just how good he can be.

"That would be my dream - to get on the Finnish national team," Kunnas said. "But there are many things that must come before that. I have to be the best one in Finland. That's a hard thing to do. There are many other big meets. I have to gradually get better."

Wartinger said, "I think he has a lot of room to put muscle on his frame to continue to get stronger. When you watch him vault, there's still technique that he needs to work on. ... But he still has a ton of room to improve. He's really interested in it. Some people aren't like that, but he's really good at it, and he wants to get better."

Will he improve enough to provide a North Tonawanda connection to the Olympics some day?

"Fingers crossed," Wartinger said.

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