Pole vaulters like to say they never really win.
That’s because the bar always beats them. Rarely does the pole vault event end after a successful clear. There’s usually three misses at some height that didn’t get reached.
Brady Koolen realizes this. But it’s the journey to reach new heights that motivates the Lincoln Southeast senior to be not only the best high school vaulter in the state, but in its history as well.
“It’s about the drive to always get better and improve and never be satisfied,” Koolen said of pole vaulting. “Because you’re always losing, you’re losing the battle with gravity. You want to win so badly that it pushes you to get more and more into it. That’s what’s been keeping me going.”
Koolen broke the Class A state record with a clear of 16 feet, 4 1/4 inches on April 28 at the Beechner Athletic Complex at Lincoln High School. It was kind of an odd day for Koolen and the vaulters. The meet was rain delayed for a while, and Koolen said the tailwind that was once there left after the rain. The precipitation meant the poles were a bit wet, too.
None of that affected what was going on in Koolen’s head though. He was prepared to jump regardless of the conditions.
“Something about that jump specifically — it was on my third attempt, which always gets your heart racing,” he said.
There was a slow-clap that accompanied Koolen as he sprinted toward the bar. He remembered hearing the echo from the stands behind him, too.
“It was pretty cool to feel everyone watching me. It added a little bit of pressure, but I think that was what helped me get over the bar,” he said.
After clearing the bar for the record, Koolen was met with a bear-hug-turned-tackle by his vaulting coach, Chris Johnson. The two shared a special moment.
— LSE Athletics (@LSEAthletics) April 29, 2021
“He’s been my coach since my freshman year and is really passionate about the sport and his athletes and me,” Koolen said. “He takes a lot of time out of the day to help me get better. It was just a big moment for me and him together. A really happy moment.”
That was one goal met, but Koolen’s on to the next now. He wants the all-class state record of 16-7 1/4, set by Gothenburg’s Tyce Hruza in 2019.
Koolen has a mindset whenever he heads into a competition. First, we wants to break the vault record of every meet he competes in. If he does that, and things are going well, he’s going to attempt 16-8 — that’s the magic number right now. That height would not only give him the all-class state record, but it’s the qualifying mark for the Under-20 World Trials, which could give Koolen an opportunity to represent the United States.
That’s the goal and game plan going forward. If Koolen gets the all-class record, it’ll be something special for him deep down. Before the track season started, he had cleared 16-4 3/4 at Nationals, leading many to expect he’d hit the mark early in his senior season at Southeast.
“It would be a big relief off of my shoulders I think,” he said. “I’ll feel that I accomplished the image that people have of me in pole vaulting. I know I don’t have to prove anything to anyone, but that will be a big part of it.”
Koolen started vaulting his freshman year at Southeast. Since he didn’t vault before high school, he credits his competitive gymnastics background for helping ease the transition. The sport has since consumed his life, he says.
“I go home after school and watch my pole vault film,” Koolen said. “It really is a lifestyle for me, I just watch a lot of film to improve and get better.”
There’s a good-luck charm, too. Koolen, who recently signed his letter of intent to compete in track at Kansas, wears specific socks when he jumps. Koolen’s mom got them for him for Christmas, and they say “Note to self: I am a star.”
“The first time I ever wore them at a meet I PR’d by like 9 inches, so I just stuck with them,” he said.
The perfect day for vaulters would be 70 degrees and sunny with a little tailwind to help push them down the runway. Then it’s time to fly — which Koolen knows isn’t a normal thing for the human body to do.
Koolen loves vaulting, but one does have to have a little wild in them to enjoy it.
“You’re carrying this 15-foot-long stick running full speed at this box you have to stick it into,” he said with a laugh. “It just goes against your natural human thought of, like, why would you ever want to do that? But you definitely have to be a little bit messed up in the head to enjoy it.”