Andrew Irwin Juggling Vaulting With Farming

“Hay cutting doesn’t always coincide with my jumping trips,” says Andrew Irwin. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

NO. 3 IN A SERIES of articles originally intended as part of our Olympic Trials Men’s Pole Vault Preview. With the Trials and Olympics now postponed to 2021 as the COVID-19 crisis grips the world, we present this series as a look at an event that was red hot through the abbreviated ’20 indoor campaign, an event that promises to be spectacular when competition resumes.

The ’20 indoor season went off with the bang of 10 U.S. vaulters flying up to 19ft-plus elevations and past the 5.80 Olympic standard. On January 4, 20 days before his 27th birthday, Andrew Irwin distinguished himself as first on the year worldwide to reach such altitude. Irwin—who vaulted a HS Indoor Record 17-9¼ (5.42) as a Mt. Ida (Arkansas) senior in ’11 before taking back-to-back NCAA Indoor crowns for Arkansas in ’12 and ’13—was back to the groove he rode for a while last year.

In the winter of ’19 Irwin put up a 19-3½ (5.88) PR at the Tyson Indoor. That was his first career comp over 19 and kicked off a 5-meet stretch of clearances above the Imperial barrier that included a USATF Indoor victory and a win in the mall vault at the Drake Relays (where Irwin went over 19 feet in each of the meet’s two vault comps).

That world-class consistency earned Irwin his first trip to a Diamond League meet, Doha, as May began. He no-heighted and, alas, more severe misfortune was to follow in the form of an all-terrain vehicle accident. “Shortly after Doha,” he recounts with a chagrined chuckle, “I flipped a side-by-side and actually broke my radius in my left forearm. It snapped that pretty much in two so I had to have surgery on it. I got a plate and six screws put in, which stays in. But all things considered so far we are back to where we’re supposed to be and the arm is doing great.”

When Irwin says “we,” the team includes coaches Morry Sanders and Irwin’s dad, Steve. Sanders founded the Arkansas Vault Club 21 years ago a few seasons before Irwin’s older sister, Stephanie, picked up the sport in which she also eventually competed for the Razorbacks.

Vaulting is by no means the only Irwin family collaborative venture. Father and son are farmers and, Irwin says, “My dad owns a restaurant in my hometown. I work there in the mornings, get off at 1 o’clock, run back to the house, change clothes, let the dog out, that kind of stuff. Then I drive 35 minutes to Lake Hamilton where Morry works, do all my training in the afternoon there. And then my dad and I actually both have farms. We’ve got cattle and we cut hay through the summer and all that kind of stuff.”

Yes, Irwin keeps busy off the vault runway. “Well, it’s definitely a juggle,” he admits. “Hay cutting doesn’t always coincide with my jumping trips but I help when I’m here and try and get quite a bit done while I’m here. Then obviously when I’m gone my dad and grandpa make sure that it’s getting taken care of.” Just as relevant a figure as 19-3½ is 1100, the approximate number of round hay bales the Irwins cut and rolled in the summer of 2019. “That’s a 4×5 net-wrapped round bale,” he explains.

Running cattle is also rugged labor, as you might guess, and Irwin’s unnecessary apology for a delay in the interview for this story spoke to how hectic life can get: “Hey man, I’m terribly sorry, it has been a heck of a few days with all the virus stuff going on. We’ve had to shut our restaurant down. Then someone actually totaled out one of our cars parked in the parking lot the other night. To top that off, our cows got out yesterday. Then still finding time to train. It’s always something, I guess.”

In his vaulting job Irwin is a perfectionist, glad to have sprung over 19ft to open the year but displeased not to repeat as national indoor champion. Instead he placed equal-5th in Albuquerque. “We had a couple of places throughout the indoor season where we thought, ‘Hey, alright we’re going to be back where I was,’” he says. “And then with different training cycles didn’t quite time everything up where I needed to be. So obviously I didn’t have a very good showing at USAs.”

He trusts, however, that a technical dam he and Sanders broke with 3 months of perseverance in the lead-in to the ’19 campaign remains breached. Irwin explains, “Basically the dumb version I can give you would be this. Right at takeoff we had to work with my hands, specifically my left arm, where it was going and how it was supposed to be working properly to execute the jump that I needed. Basically we were just looking at, I don’t know, a 3- or 4-inch shift with where my hand position was at takeoff. So it just took me a little bit to get it nailed down in order for my brain to process.”

He remembers telling his coach, “I understand what you’re telling me and it makes total sense but for some reason I’m losing a link in that chain of actually executing it and making my body do what it’s supposed to do.”

Sometimes vaulters and their coaches must invent new languages, and that’s what Irwin and Sanders managed successfully in one of those practices. He explains, “We were focused on my left side, to which he wound up actually having to tell me to think about something different with my right hand. And that was the game-changer.

“Instead of thinking about going where I was supposed to with my left, we wound up actually shifting my position on my right hand from straight up over my head to 2–3 inches further in front of me at takeoff, which allowed my left arm to go where it was supposed to and stay tall instead of everything basically going straight up and then my left side kind of collapsing a little bit while it catches my momentum and then pushing it back out and getting connected. We didn’t want that lag.”

Got that? What matters is Irwin does. He missed the ’16 Olympic Trials after shattering his takeoff ankle that year so is determined to be ready for the Tokyo Trials when eventually the meet is held: “Technically speaking, I think I’m still here,” he says. “We’ve been very fortunate enough to be able to do workouts. I’m not limited in my jumping right now. I’m still able to go do my job, practices twice a week that I’ve been having. So that’s helping tremendously. And yes, my left side’s been looking great. I’ve actually had some really good practices in the last couple of weeks.

“So I feel very confident that I’m going to be OK as long as they actually let us have something.”