Reaching New Heights
Brownsburg High School Pole Vaulting Coach Teaches Students to Soar On & Off the Field
Photographer: Amy Payne
It can be argued that middle school track & field is part recreation and part social. It’s a way for 12 and 13-year-olds to mix and mingle while also dabbling in the wide range of activities the sport offers. Chris Fowler admits that it was the social aspect that initially drew him to track when he was in eighth grade.
“I had no clue what I might like so I tried running hurdles and did well,” Fowler says. “Then I noticed that there was this event where a few crazy kids ran full-speed ahead and hurled themselves over a pole. I was immediately intrigued.”
He gave pole vaulting a whirl and found that he was pretty good at it. In fact, he liked it so much that he continued with it all through high school.
“I love the entire sequence of pole vaulting,” says Fowler, who, for the past three decades, has coached hurdles and pole vault at several Indiana high schools. “I call it ‘the event of 37 steps.’”
Once an athlete gets the feet correct when he is running, then he can move on to another step of manipulating his grip height and working on techniques like holding and running with the pole and driving to plant it.
“Doing that when you’re running at top speed is not necessarily easy,” says Fowler, a Hendricks County resident since 2007 who, in the past, has coached at the middle school level in both Mooresville and Avon. Five years ago, he began coaching pole vault at Brownsburg High School (BHS).
“Working on the progression of each of those components to achieve higher levels of competencies,” Fowler says.
Once a student masters their steps, Fowler teaches the mechanics of learning the swing-up and how to turn and clear the bar in a safe manner.
“It’s not a complicated thing, in theory, but putting all of the pieces together to really excel at it is more in depth than one might realize,” Fowler adds. “It’s been a joy communicating the different steps to the kids, then watching them really take off with it.”
Through the years, he’s seen the popularity of his favorite event really explode. According to Fowler, most schools have anywhere from 6-10 vaulters. BHS, however, has had as many as 20 vaulters per season. Fowler attributes part of that interest to the fact that students have fun using an instrument to perform.
“Having to manipulate the pole is a fascinating element of the sport,” Fowler says.
The poles are weight-rated, which means that a student needs to be under that weight to use that pole. They range in length as well, with beginning poles being 10 ft., and longer poles 14 ft. or above. They also have a flex rating to indicate how flexible a pole is or where it bends.
“There’s a lot of math, science and physics that goes into pole vaulting,” Fowler says. “Everything from an athlete’s stride length to rate of speed to height of the pole at the time of the plant, in the force of energy that is put into the pole that the vaulter will feel as the pole releases.”
Fowler estimates that halfway through the season he will see a good number of his athletes achieve a level of competency where they will start to see big gains and set personal records.
“It’s when they are willing to attack the entire approach and run with more confidence that they improve,” Fowler says. “As their confidence grows, they move up higher on the pole itself.”
Fowler, who worked as a youth pastor for 19 years, became a chaplain with Heart to Heart Hospice in Hendricks County in April 2018. Working for 25 years in the field of ministry translates well to knowing how to interact with others. Sometimes the patients he visits with seek closure. Others seek reconciliation. Sometimes they simply want conversation.
“I encourage them in their faith. I work with them through a difficult time,” Fowler says. “I feel like God has given me a relational heart that enables me to love people where they are.”
It’s a gift that comes in incredibly handy when working with students. That’s why Fowler tries his best to always be an active listener as listening is a huge part of healing.
“When there are 20 pole vaulters in line on the runway, that provides plenty of chances to talk,” says Fowler, who loves coaching the Brownsburg Bulldogs.
“Every student has the opportunity to make progress and set personal records every time they go out on the field,” Fowler says. “Top athletes recognize that you have to put forth your best effort not only in competitions but also in practice. ‘Practice makes perfect’ isn’t enough. It’s got to be quality practice at your highest level. That’s what’s going to give you those personal gains.”
Fowler points out that one of the joys of track is that even if a team doesn’t perform well, an individual still can. And that’s to be celebrated.
“That’s definitely one element that’s distinctive about track,” Fowler says. “Swimming and tennis fall under that category as well.”
Given his youth ministry background, Fowler has always loved working with students, and he embraces them all, whether they are seasoned athletes or fresh to the sport.
“Almost every year I get at least one student who has never touched a pole before,” Fowler says. “I love to watch them go literally from ground zero all the way up to who knows how high.”
BHS is in one of the toughest conferences when it comes to pole vault competition. For instance, they face Carmel and Hamilton Southeastern, two of the most consistent schools to make it to the state meet each year. This year, however, three of Fowler’s top vaulters are returning so he’s predicting a strong season for Brownsburg.
Fowler has been married to his high school sweetheart, Teresa, for 32 years. Together they have two daughters: Julianne (a freshman at IU) and Emma (a freshman at BHS). Years ago, Chris and Teresa had their very first conversation at track practice. So it seems that the social aspect that initially drew Fowler to the sport really worked in his favor as he fell in love with the track and on the track.