It’s only February yet the men’s pole vault is taking off with Mach 5 velocity. Collegians are in the elite mix as never before in the professional era and Akron senior Matt Ludwig, the first among NCAA athletes to touch the world lead this year, plans to fly with the best for all of what’s shaping up as a thrillingly competitive season.
The ’17 NCAA outdoor champ in his first season with coach Dennis Mitchell’s Zips (he spent his frosh year at Missouri), Ludwig has broken out fast this winter. On January’s second weekend he equaled his PR of 18-8¾ (5.71) to win at the annual Pole Vault Summit, defeating some very high-hoppers, 6-meter men Mondo Duplantis and Shawn Barber, and 19-footers Andrew Irwin and Scott Houston among them.
Reno was a meet of busting rust for most but Ludwig wasn’t just in for an early-season ambush. “Once you get over the Worlds standard [which his Reno height was exactly], at least on the men’s side that next box to check is 19-feet, up over 5.80,” he says. A week later at home, Ludwig checked it, soaring over 19-1½ (5.83) on second attempt for the world lead at the time to move to =No. 4 on the all-time collegiate indoor list (see box).
“It’s funny enough, we did it at the Akron–Kent dual meet,” he says, “and it was run on ESPN3. In their coverage right after that jump, my teammates sort of swarmed me on the pit and we had this huge dogpile for 30 or 40 seconds. I think it was really just sort of a show that, even though it’s an individual event, it’s such a team sport and it was just as much of a victory and a success for the entire team as it was for me on that day. Each of my teammates knew just how hard that we worked together to accomplish our similar goals. I think seeing it pay off for someone like me with a big jump is really exciting for all of us and keeps us motivated to keep working hard every day.” Akron won the meet 78–72.
It was the kind of moment Mitchell lives for his team to produce. “This is what we talk about a lot,” says the coach now in his 24th season guiding the Zips. ‘’The environment can make a huge difference on yourself competitively. And you know, we keep trying to make our sport as boring as we can, especially sometimes at the collegiate level. We don’t realize the emotion that’s involved and the competitive opportunities, getting these kids to compete for their teams or getting them to compete for certain titles. Sometimes we get so mark oriented and we don’t realize that emotional part of vaulting.”
Mitchell, a former vaulter himself, recognizes the ’19 campaign’s potential to play out with a rich skein of emotionally fraught comps, the pleasure to watch kind, in the event. Ludwig’s on board with that vision: “Those are just so exciting. The focus is just purely on competing and getting your victory. If you can come out on top, the heights will take care of themselves, and what’s going to be important in post-collegiate track & field is winning championships, earning medals and making teams. No matter how high you jump, you can’t allow yourself to have those opportunities if you’re not putting yourself in the top 2 or 3 at every competition that you’re in. Coach Mitchell does a very, very good job of promoting that with all of our training and keeping things competitive every day between the teammates—to stay focused on understanding that winning a championship and winning a meet is much more important to establish that fundamental, to establish that habit.”
A 16-2¾ (4.95) high schooler in ’15 for Lake Catholic (Chardon, Ohio), Ludwig raised his best to 18-8¼ (4.70) and captured that NCAA crown two years ago. “In 2017 I came out and spent the first year transferring to Akron and training with coach Mitchell,” Ludwig says, “and we developed really well some of my competition habits, when I got in the big meets that I could compete with the big dogs, no matter what anyone’s PR is going into the competition. I think that helped a lot in 2017 before I had the skill set that I do now. 2018 was a huge building year for me, I made the transition to 5.10 [16-8¾] from 5m poles, and it took a long time—up until through this preseason—to really get comfortable and consistent with them. And since we’ve hit even the first meets even this year I’ve seen massive improvements and I’ve gone up 3, 4 poles in my progression from last year and have started jumping much higher. So this year is kind of the big year to be dominant, the year to try to be on top with everything I do and keep raising the bar. So for me personally, I don’t want to say it was expected but that’s definitely what I expected out of myself, to be performing at the high level, jumping up over 19 and doing it consistently. So I’ve done it once, the next step’s to do it twice and then a third time and a fourth and keep the ball rolling as much as I can.”
Another “next step” this indoor season will involve approaching the Akron school record. It’s a behemoth, Barber’s 19-4¾ (5.91) from the ’15 NCAA Indoor, which also happens to be the collegiate under-a-roof standard. “Given all the talent in the NCAA, I do not suspect that that Collegiate Record will last through this indoor season—whether myself or any of the other three or four athletes that are just as talented steps up and takes it. Speaking for myself, I think I’m fully capable any day to go out and jump it.” Ludwig adjudges the height to be “well within my wheelhouse at this moment.”
What is the strong suit Ludwig plans to bring to the challenge? “I’d have to go with my speed on the runway,” he says. “I’m pretty quick for a pole vaulter in terms of looking at the general population. I’m certainly short [5-9¾; 1.77 metrically], and I think I’m pretty strong and explosive and dynamic with all that. I kind of have to be. I’m not going to be able to be the super-slow finesse jumper. I’m going to have to be sort of like a little rocketship coming in and taking off and throwing myself off the stiff pole. But I think that in the last two years of learning and refining my jump with coach Mitchell we’ve found this really nice balance of enough length and enough finesse to be able to bring all my speed and explosiveness and line things up. It’s just as much of an all-out explosive, adrenaline-filled motion as it is a technical display. And it makes me really excited for the future to know that technical limitations and efficiency is what’s limiting my jump at this moment. I much prefer those problems to trying to build raw speed or raw strength to improve my jumps further so I think the sky’s the limit and I’m really excited to keep working for it.”
Mitchell, too, is bullish on Ludwig’s prospects for climbing higher. “His high school team won State and he was pretty much a one-man wrecking crew on the team,” says the coach. “If he wasn’t a vaulter he’d probably be a national qualifier in the decathlon as well. He’s a good athlete.”
Ludwig is also a biomedical engineering major. His academic interest aligns with his athleticism. “Quite a bit, yeah,” he agrees. “I’m in the biomechanics track. Biomechanics takes on a lot of different definitions, but the ones that interest me the most are the biomechanics of human movement. So understanding the physics behind athletic movements really is helpful when you sit down and look at the pole vault, which is this crazy technical event which is based in efficiency and explosiveness and all about this energy conservation as you move through the jump. So being able to sit down, look at the film in slow motion and realize, ‘Oh, look, you’re a little slow here, you’re missing the timing,’ I’m able to understand that in my brain and tell my body how to react and how to try to fix that problem in training.”
Says Mitchell, “As I get older I realize I’ve got to build things around the athletes themselves. Each one’s unique and we’re starting to find that out more and more in the vault. There used to be, ‘You’ve got to follow Bubka’ and all those things. I’ve had some Bubka types and I’ve had some other types and we’re starting to find that all the top vaulters out there are extremely unique, between Mondo, and Kendricks is completely different than all those other two or three. You’ve got Renaud Lavillenie, he’s got a very unique technique in terms of the different things he does, his style. I think that’s what’s really been helping the vault lately, is that people say, ‘Alright, you have to figure out what’s best for each one right now.’ You’ve still got to follow the basics of physics—that’s all the same but each person kind of trailblazes something very unique in there.”
Ludwig’s aim, and he’s well on his way, is to write his name among the trailblazers.