New Pro Matt Ludwig Reaching New Heights

Matt Ludwig PRed twice this winter, the first of them in winning the USATF title. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

SECOND 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 ’21 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.

In a winter of striking vault performances, first-year pro Matt Ludwig was the man with the mostest in the soaring fireworks display that was the USATF Indoor competition. ’19 Akron grad Ludwig, who took the NCAA title in ’17, catapulted himself over a 19-2¼ (5.85) PR bar on second attempt to prevail over Branson Ellis and move to =No. 10 on the all-time U.S. indoor list. Behind him, the 19-¼ (5.80) PR performance of Stephen F. Austin soph Ellis, just 19, added another exclamation point to the story of U.S. vaulting’s current youth movement.

For Ludwig, who still works with his college coach, Dennis Mitchell, the Nationals win was a highlight—but just one key event—in a winter season of reaching the level he hoped to attain last year before he badly bruised his backside in a spring competition. “He landed on his butt near the standards of a pit in one of our meets,” says Mitchell, “and hit it pretty solid.” Ludwig managed to jump at the ’19 MAC Champs “limping down the runway from a short approach,” says the coach, but the injury hurt him at the national meets (=13 NCAA, no-height USATF).

Thus this February’s win in Albuquerque was sweet. “Yeah, it was certainly a confidence booster,” the 23-year-old Ohioan says. “It shows that I can go out and compete with anybody in the U.S. and then, inevitably, everybody in the world. It shows that when I’m on or even when I need to make adjustments I’m going to be able to go out and compete and jump at 5.80 [19-¼] bars and higher and put myself on the teams.”

Eight days later Ludwig PRed again, 19-4¼ (5.90), at an outdoor meet in Mexico City placing 2nd on misses to another banner clearance, Jacob Wooten’s 4-inch improvement of his own best (look for our profile of Wooten soon). In an event as technical as the vault, though, sometimes the pivotal advances come in meets where the athlete’s performance reads unremarkable from afar. So it went for Ludwig during a 3-meet European tour in January/February.

“The thing for me, it’s just been figuring out my approach,” he says, “and that’s almost been a conscious thing that we’ve had to work at. But also through the nature of my indoor season I had to do a lot of traveling. I got to do a little bit of international, my first European trip.”

But a particularly vexing inconsistency in his approach, Ludwig explains, led to calf fatigue at the most inopportune moments: “I’d get excited at some important bars or crucial jumps. It really, really fatigued my muscles too much. I have a tendency of driving through and pushing off my toes greatly and really, really activated my calves. I tend to be a toe walker and toe runner to an extreme extent and when I really drive through my toes too long in the backside I really fatigue my calves quickly. And no matter how hydrated I am and how well I prepare and maintain my body for competition, if I just overwork it too quickly I’ll run into cramping at the highest bars of the meet, which is not when you want to see it fall.”

But when he least expected it, as he winged it through back-to-back meets on consecutive nights in the European winter, an insight descended upon the problem. Ludwig’s marks were good but not peak efforts: 18-4½ (5.60) for 2nd in Chemnitz, Germany, and then 18-1¼ (5.52) for equal-2nd to Mondo Duplantis’s WR in Toruń, Poland, the next night. It wasn’t the heights that mattered, it was the light that switched on.

Ludwig says, “It came on in Toruń, really, because I got there and I was like, ‘Man, I feel rough. I competed yesterday, jumped 5.60 [18-4½] and then passed straight up to 5.80 [19-¼] to take some attempts. I took like 10 or 11 total jumps on the day from warmup through the meet. And then we jumped in a car and drove 8 hours through the night to Toruń at 7:00 in the morning, checked into the hotel, slept until about 2:00 in the afternoon and then got up and got ready to head to the venue and compete. So it was through the nature of that work that I had to force myself to say, ‘If I tried to jump the same way I did yesterday we’re going to have a ton of issues.’”

Necessity being the fabled mother of invention, Ludwig says, “I just let myself relax a little bit and one of the best results of that is that staying relaxed allowed me to hit my positions on the runway a lot better, and it actually made for a more consistent approach. So I was able to take that nugget of information and then bring it to training and start to master it and just get better with it. And now since then my approach has been the single most beneficial and strongest part of my job.”

“He was ready, he was jumping well,” confirms Mitchell—speaking after ferrying Ludwig and poles, social-distanced in the way-back seat, to a private facility for a jump session. “And then he comes back for training and practice and he’s just—I’ve never had someone jump that well, man. We don’t put a lot of stock in practice but he’s jumping well and he’s very focused. I think he’s really done well with the professional scene, being able to handle not having school and all those things—’cause he’s a very, very good student—and just trying to live that professional life and being able to be a little bit more independent. He’s really handled it well and I think he’s benefiting from it right now.”

The Coronavirus crisis? Ludwig says, “Everybody’s sort of scrambling to find their ideal training situation and I don’t think anybody really has one right now. I think we’re all sharing that cooperative struggle, but ultimately it’s going to be who can stay dedicated and motivated to get their training done every day through the necessary means. (Continued below)

“For me right now it’s once a week at a private club that we’re going to [see video in tweet above]. It’s great to have access to that, but even then it’s certainly not like the indoor facility at Akron. I have to limit my approach to 5 or 6 lefts or shorter. Certainly I wouldn’t be able to fit my full approach. I could maybe fit an approach that I could grip high and get on my meet poles in terms of length but not in stiffness. We’ll see.”

That’s about all anyone can do right now.