NOW A FROSH AT KANSAS, ’21’s No. 1 prep vault All-America Clayton Simms is training alongside 19-footer Zach Bradford in a deep Jayhawk vault corps that until the end of the last school year included now-graduated ’18 NCAA Indoor champion Hussain Al Hizam.
Simms (Live Oak, Watson, Louisiana) who captured 4 State titles (indoors and out) before winning at the prestigious NSAF/Nike meet last summer, says his college choice was an easy one.
“It really came down to just the coaching,” he explains. “Where did I think that I was gonna get to be the best I could be, and I just truly believed it was going to be here. Really what it came down to was just Tom Hays.” Hays, now in his 16th season at KU, is the vertical jumps assistant on Stanley Redwine’s staff.
“My coach back home [Joe Sarra of the Louisiana Pole Vault Compound club] kind of planted the seed in my head for me because he has a whole lot of respect for Tom,” Simms says.
The respect goes both ways. “Clayton is awesome!” Hays says, adding that Simms ”already has a college-like run and it’s going to be fun watching the rest of his jump catch up.”
In November of ’20 Simms took a major jump up, literally, from the 16-0 PR he set at the end of the ’19 season to a 17-4½ clearance at an all-vault meet in Texas. The mark held up as the national leader throughout the 1920–21 season until he flew higher still, 17-6, at July’s Dauphin Street Vault in Mobile, Alabama, to finish the season.
Simms even says of his senior year State loss, “No hard feelings about that one.” The winner was ’22 senior and 17-footer Beau Domingue, “my best friend… we’ve been training at the same club every single day together for the past three years.”
When Simms first came to the vault as a ninth-grader he brought 6 years of useful gymnastics experience and he landed almost right away at the LPVC, a group with an elite pedigree. Simms’ first coach at the club was ’08 Olympian Erica Fraley (née Bartolina).
Sarra, though, came to the event by a road less traveled. A former javelin thrower, he has never launched himself over a crossbar in competition, though he built State College High of Pennsylvania into a power in the event before migrating south to Louisiana for the ’20 season.
While Simms’ collaboration with Sarra began in conventional fashion, their work together, too, took an atypical path to high-level success. Just as C19 locked down the ’20 campaign, Simms began feeling pain in a foot that soon “got to a point where my foot couldn’t really take it anymore.” The diagnosis, initially elusive, was an avulsion fracture and a torn ligament in the foot.
Simms underwent surgery and from late April of ’20 until the end of August he was physically unable to vault. He couldn’t practice but he could watch and learn, a process that paid rich dividends.
“The whole summer,” Simms says, “I wasn’t just sitting around not doing anything. I was still going up to the club every single day and basically just sitting next to my coach, helping him coach practice and really just figuring out, trying to ingrain in my mind, what we needed to do to actually get better when I got back.
“So we had the whole plan, basically, and I really started to understand the actual vault a lot more after just taking a step back and really learning about the event.”
Citing veteran coaches, “a lot of the old guys like Earl Bell and David Butler and even Tom, guys who’ve been in the sport forever,” Simms says, “A big key component of the vault is elasticity and just having that stretch ’cause blocking out kind of kills the whole vault.
“You want to be elastic but also strong and fast, and that’s something we kind of looked at as a point of weakness in my vault. Before I was very stiff and it wasn’t as strong and fluid like it should be. So we figured it out, I did a lot of thinking and a lot of drill work on stretching, elasticity and stuff. I think that helped a lot over the next season. And I know I’m still working on it now.”
Hays is excited by what he sees in fall training, saying, “We try to get all our freshmen grounded and comfortable with our system as soon as we can. After they start to understand the direction we are going we’ll start working with Clayton’s move on the pole.
“Every vaulter has a style, or move on the pole, and we can help Clayton with his move. My goal is to make Clayton’s move strong and comfortable by mid-indoor season. If we can get this objective done then we can just sit back, have fun, and enjoy watching him compete.”