Irvine athletes raise the bar

Each track season, athletes from Irvine high schools and UC Irvine do what seems to be the impossible.

Each track season, athletes from Irvine high schools and UC Irvine do what seems to be impossible: They accelerate down a track. Plant a fiberglass pole. Get inverted. Launch into the air. Fly back down. And do it all over again.

One of those athletes is Woodbridge senior Madison Wong, an established force in the Pacific Coast League. This season she competed in five invitationals and vaulted a personal best of 10 feet, 9 inches.

“Yeah, I get kind of nervous,” she says of the start to each hurdle — a 45-meter sprint carrying a 90-pound pole in perfect balance, so she can plant it correctly.

At that moment, something almost miraculous happens.

The kinetic energy generated from her run is transferred to the pole, which bends back nearly 90 degrees. As the pole recoils, its kinetic energy is released, propelling her up, feet first, and over the bar.

“It is exhilarating,” she says. “The feeling of clearing the bar is so satisfying.”

Wong’s favorite subjects are math and science, which help her understand the physics of her sport. And her training — as a gymnast from age 3 — helps her perform the necessary body rotations, while suspended upside-down in midair, to clear the bar.

Because of the sport’s athleticism, risks and difficulty, it attracts relatively few athletes.

“We share a common bond,” Wong says. “When not in competition, we root for each other. We’re a community.”

It’s a community that’s said to date back to 500 B.C., when warriors used their battle spears to catapult over barriers. In 1896, it became an Olympic sport. And today, many still see pole vaulters as modern-day warriors.