All photos by Elizabeth Heard Poster
There was a time – one year ago, to be exact - when Monica Pechanec had no idea about the pole vault.
“All I knew is it was something in track and field that used a long pole and a box,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about it.”
Safe to say that the senior from Notre Dame Green Pond High in Easton, Penn., is no stranger to the event anymore. As for her competition, they’re quickly realizing that the gymnast turned pole-vaulter is a legitimate force to reckon with.
With this treacherous month of January now a little more than a week from coming to an end, Pechanec ranks No. 13 nationally. She earned that distinction based on her win at the Emrey Christmas Relays Dec. 28 at Lehigh University.
At the time of her victory, her last time competing in the event, Pechanec held the top spot. Not bad considering that it was only back in April of last year when the gifted 17-year-old vaulter got her fast taste of competition.
Pechanec comes from a gymnastic background. It was a route that she thought she would take into her teenage years and possibly beyond. Her mom, Yvettte, once competed on the Czech National Team, and her sister, Nicole, earned an athletic scholarship to Stanford University where she now competes as a junior for the Cardinal.
The thought of competing in the pole vault never crossed the mind of the younger Pechanec. A nagging elbow injury that began at age nine and forced her to leave the sport as a Level 7 gymnast three years later, changed all that.
“It just got worse and I couldn’t compete anymore,” she said.
Pechanec, who coaches gymnasts along with her mother and several other staff members at Twilight Gymnastics in N.J., tried several other sports to keep her competitive juices alive. Fate, it seemed, eventually drew her to the pole vault.
“I tried diving and did it competitively for two years, but I started to develop ear infections from the water,” she recalled. “I started tennis while I was in gymnastics at age 5 and did it again from 12 to 14, and even competed outside school for the USTA and got into all different types of levels. I played in tournaments and was sort of above average and then the elbow injury came back and I had to stop.”
Pechanec’s next choice was track and field where she was considering being a sprinter until she took the advice of fellow Twilight gymnastic coach Hubert Etheison, a onetime high school and collegiate pole-vaulter.
“He saw the flexibility and the athleticism I had from gymnastics and thought it was perfect for the pole vault,” Pechanec said.
The rest, shall we say, is history.
With Etheison’s suggestion and a truckload of confidence, Pechanec and her mom got in contact last January with the folks at Vertical Assault - a year-round pole-vaulting club in Bethlehem, PA. Joe Donohue, a former coach at Lafayette University and an instructor at Vertical Assault along with owner Mike Lawryk, noticed Pechanec’s gift for vaulting almost instantly.
“Right away she just started the transition at a high skill level in the beginning sequences,” he said. “It just took off from there.”
Pechanec’s strength in the pole vault not only comes from her athleticism but the swing action that she developed from her years as a gymnast, where she competed in the vault. For a pole-vaulter, the swing comes into play during the transition from leaving the pole to getting the legs and body over the bar.
“She’s just got tremendous swing energy from her gymnastic background,” Donohue said. “She also can generate a lot of speed (down the runway).”
After some floor and technique work, Pechanec didn’t start using a pole at Vertical Assault until March. “For her, the first thing she saw was bungee cords at nine feet,” Donohue said.
Once she had the ability to go airborne, Pechanec instantly fell in love with the event.
“I was overjoyed the first time I did it,” she said. “I couldn’t believe I was able to do something like that. From that point on, I just wanted to jump higher.”
The first height that Pechanec officially cleared was 10 feet, which she did in capturing the event in a dual meet around mid-April.
“It took my breadth away,” she said. “I didn’t know what I would be able to jump. When I actually won, it gave me a great feeling to know that I could do it.”
Pechanec did 10 feet again in placing fourth at the Colonial League Championships on May 13. That vault earned Pechanec a slot in the PIAA Track and Field Championships on May 28 where she cleared a season-best 10-6 to finish in a seven-way tie for 10th.
Pechanec began the indoor season this winter with a sixth-place, 11-0 effort at the TFCA of GP Division II Meet on Dec. 18. Ten days later, she smashed that PB with her victory at the Christmas City Relays. In that meet, she cleared her opening height of 10-6 on her second attempt and made 11 feet on her initial vault. After clearing 11-6 on her second try and already solidifying the win, Pechanec had the bar raised to 11-9 and made that height on her last attempt.
The next goal for the gymnast turned nationally-ranked pole-vaulter is to crack the 12-foot barrier and possibly higher by the time she makes her way to the Big Apple in March for the National Scholastic Track & Field Championships in New York City.
“Since I have already done 11-9, I am thinking 12 feet at the next meet,” said the confident Pechanec, who is looking at Brown, Vanderbilt or Duke to further her education and athletic future. “I think I’ll be able to get 12-3 (by the state meet). I’m hoping maybe at Nationals I can get 12-6. Maybe I’m being too ambitious, but we’ll see.”