FOR THE DOYENNE of American vaulters, Jenn Suhr — the world’s No. 2 all-time performer, ’12 Olympic champion and silver medalist in ’08 — time and timing stack up as the most critical factors in her pursuit of a fourth career Olympic appearance and record-tieing third medal.
The New York native — who nailed her PR 16-6 (5.03) indoors 5 years ago in season No. 11 in the event — will be 39 come Olympic Trials time this June. She is up to the challenge, she assures, and laser-focused on picking her spots. She has to be.
A year ago at the USATF Indoor, Suhr served emphatic notice she was not to be counted out in what was supposed to be the ’20 Olympic season. As a gripping competition winnowed down to the 17-time national champion super-vet and World Champs silver medalist Sandi Morris, the pair each cleared 15-11 (4.85) on first attempts and Suhr led on misses as the bar was raised to 16-¾ (4.90) — a centimeter below Morris’s then season-leading mark. Not until each had missed twice did Morris slip over on third time of asking and Suhr came up one bar short.
Even though she shut down her ’20 season thereafter — explaining she wanted no part in any risk of spreading the coronavirus — Suhr’s mark delivered her the No. 4 performer’s spot on the ’20 compilation.
She assuredly remains on the short list for Tokyo podium consideration. No other woman vaulter has carried on at the peak elite level so deep into her 30s. Proud of that and having won three times at the Olympic Trials, Suhr looks toward her fourth OT with equanimity.
“I just try to think about what I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished and not put it all into another Olympic Trials, and, you know, ‘this is redemption,’” she says. “I have to think about what I’ve already done and anything’s a bonus.”
Her “redemption” reference is, of course to Rio ’16, to which she arrived with the world list lead, that third OT win in hand and favorite’s status. Then calamity struck — a debilitating viral infection that racked her lungs and other systems. Does that ring a bell?
“I think that’s another reason why I respect [COVID 19] so much,” she says. “I mean, I have imaging to prove the scar tissue on my lungs, so I don’t even know how I’d handle this virus. You know, it’s just Rio definitely did some permanent damage.”
Rick Suhr, her coach/husband, remembers, “That’s the only time she was ever ranked to win, and we didn’t win, we didn’t take a medal. But look, here’s the bottom line. If you saw the respiratory virus she took in Rio, I know what it’s like to be with a very critically ill athlete out on the road. And I would not wish that experience on anybody.
“Jen was extremely sick and it took her 6 weeks to recover. I can’t even tell you how brutal it was. I still to this day, can’t believe she even made a bar, but she went out there and jumped 15-1 [4.60] on an opener. I don’t know how you take 7th in the Olympics and she didn’t even know really what was going on. She was actually kind of delusional. Fever, coughing.
“You know, I’ll tell you what: If you take COVID symptoms; exact, exact. Coughing out of comprehension, pneumonia, couldn’t breathe, coughing up blood. Didn’t sleep for three nights. The only way she could get through the night was in a hot shower. She’d just sit in a hot shower to breathe. We just couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t do anything.
“When she went out for the final, she was done, I mean, it was ridiculous. It is what it is. It’s just, it was a horrible thing to watch.”
Jenn has left Rio in the past. Her immediate concern now is preparing as optimally as she can with an almost-40 body: “One thing with me is there’s only so many impacts my body has off of a long run. So what we’ve done is we’ve been really technical and stayed on shorter runs and really tried to refine things that I’m not good at. So it’s been a lot of focus.
“Last workout I told Rick, ‘I focused harder on this than any SATs I ever took.’ It’s kind of funny that I’ve done it all these years, but still there’s so much to refine and to improve. You learn your body a little more and you also learn, you know, I don’t have the same amount of speed coming in that I did maybe 15 years ago so maybe I gotta use my levers a little differently. And so we work on things like that just to be ready — I mean, I haven’t been timed on the laser and a full run in a while, so I’m not sure of my speed — but just to be ready for anything that might happen.
“With lifting too, we don’t lift the 1-rep max anymore because that’s just when something goes wrong. So we’ll definitely rep out 6, 8, but we won’t do that ‘1-rep let’s see what you can lift’ anymore because you have no bailouts at that point. On rep 4, if I feel something I can stop, but we don’t do that heavy lifting on my body anymore.”
Rick Suhr is a man who speaks his mind — at once the staunchest believer in Jenn’s ability after 15 seasons and a steely-eyed analyst. Parsing the Olympic picture he says, “Look, there’s basically 6 athletes here that are going to [compete for] the medals. There are 6 athletes in my opinion that are better than the rest. Those 6, I really don’t believe there is much of an edge for any of them — for whatever reason, whether that be age, speed, experience, what their PRs are. All 6 of these girls are pretty close. In other words, on any day, any of the 6 — and 3 of them are Americans.”
Assessing further, Suhr the coach says, “Some people are really fast. Some people are really fearless. Some people have a knack staying healthy. You know, our advantage that we have is we’ve been over 5-meters [16-4¾] three times. No one else has done that. Jen is the most experienced. She is a very good technical vaulter. She’s got years behind her. That’s her strength, no bar really scares her.
“The weaknesses? Look, I’m rolling in here with a 39-plus-year-old, and everybody at age 40 is 10 years retired. Her biggest challenge would be to get to the Trials healthy and to the Games healthy. And the odds of that are probably not good. They’re a whole heck of a lot less than everybody else’s. Pole vault is a rough event and it’s not an event for a 40-year-old to be doing. I mean jogging on a Masters runway is one thing. But when you’re jumping with the top 3, 4 in the world it’s a lot easier for something to pop.”
This is where timing comes in. “We’ve learned that medals are handed out in July and August,” Rick says. “So really you’ve got to direct your training to coming out at Trials and then going from there, and all the meets before Trials here just don’t mean anything. And I think it’s a mistake to push the throttle there.
“So yes, we train. Jenn is a freak when it comes to fitness. Let me tell you, I don’t think there is a more fit 39-year-old anywhere in the world. I really believe that there isn’t. That I know of. She is that fit. So she is always dangerous. If she’s healthy, Jenn can jump 4.95 [16-2¾]. Anytime she’s healthy, she’s capable of jumping that. She’s only better than she’s ever been. She’s more experienced than she’s ever been.”
Suhr the vaulter has faith in all that. However, she admits to minor internal struggles amid the uncertainty around when it will be clear the Trials are a go. “I think the hardest thing is you sit here and you’re waiting and they are running some street meets or meets here or there, and you’re trying to make a decision. You know, you kind of get that feeling of, ‘There’s something going on. Should I be there?’ You kind of get that anxiety, like, ‘Wait, everyone else jumped and I should be jumping.’ Like, no, that’s not a good idea. So you get that feeling of missing out.
“But at the same time, I think if you take it day by day and you plan what you want to do in terms of your workout maybe four days ahead and not weeks and months, it’s easier that way. And so that’s what I started to do. We started to just plan maybe four days at a time instead of looking at months and counting down from there.”
Patience, grasshopper: Rick says Jenn is “healthy and firing on all cylinders. She can jump with anyone in the world. No question, no question. So it’d be a great ending to her career if she could get in there and medal. She’s very well capable of it. She’s got as good a chance as anyone.
“But on the other hand, yeah, nobody beats Father Time. Nobody. I mean, I don’t care how good you are. Father Time is the great equalizer. If Jen is healthy and feeling good, she’s dangerous. And people know that and it’s great that she’s in that position at her age, because no one’s ever been in that position.”