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Flip, flop and fly: Lake Middle School students take the Vault Safe challenge

Annika Limpert grabs some air during a stick-jumping class at Lake Middle School. Steve Thomas (center) established the program with Olympic pole vaulter and gold medalist Stacy Dragila. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia

Students at Lake Middle School took a running jump Oct. 17 when they tried out a concept called Vault Safe.

The pee-wee version of pole vaulting was created by Olympic pole vaulter and gold medalist Stacy Dragila and her former trainer Steve Thomas.

Thomas stopped at Lake as part of a national tour to promote the sport, bringing his cargo of cut-down bamboo poles and a Johnny Appleseed's enthusiasm — not only for the sport of pole vaulting, but for its confidence-building potential.

"This transcends athletics in our view," Thomas said, during an outdoor session for seventh-graders. Hula Hoops laid on the grass served as targets for the jumping beings, who tried to get the hang of running, planting the pole and launching themselves through the air.

Often, kids won't progress "until they step out of their comfort zone to do something that's a bit scary," he added.

Most probably won't make it to the Olympics, but breaking through the fear barrier can inspire a kid to tackle other challenges such as public speaking or music, Thomas said.

East Ridge pole vault coach Mark Haesly arranged the visit. Most of the kids at Lake Middle School will move up to East Ridge, he said, and he hopes to discover some new recruits.

After the warm-up, each student got to pole vault using the more traditional setup. Sotile Kibru, 12, took a running jump as her classmates chanted her name.

Some, like Makiah Arnold, 12, had a head start by virtue of her background in gymnastics. But the talents of Sarah Tolbert, also 12, lay in musical theater. As an singer and actor, she was a bit out of her depth — or was it height? One of her attempts flopped. But she cleared the bar on her next attempt,

"As classmates I know I can trust them not to make fun of me," she said.

Failure is part of the learning process,Thomas said. Physical education teacher Nancy Nichols agreed.

"I was skeptical about doing it," she said. "I'm very pleased about how they responded."

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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