Fourth of July Pole Vault Competition
by Jake Knabel, CU Sports Information Director
The first Fourth of July Pole Vault Competition looked much different than the one that now takes place on the historic downtown streets of Seward. Sparked by the competitive fire of Gene Brooks, then an elite pole vaulter at Concordia, roughly 30 top-notch area college athletes took part in the first holiday pole vault event in 1990.
Twenty-four years later, the athletic spectacle is a wildly popular and still growing staple of Seward’s famed July 4 celebration. Organizers said on July 4 that 93 vaulters had registered to compete, which was a new record for number of competitors.
“It was an excuse to get our buddies together and some of the guys we jumped with and have fun,” said Jason Berry, now in his eighth year as the lead organizer of the event. “Then we hit the street and with the novelty, excitement, the music and the crowds, it just started feeding on itself. The popularity grew.”
Initially, the pole vault competition played out on the Concordia University campus. Up until 1997, the Seward fireworks were displayed right at the stadium, drawing an audience of thousands to a venue that was then just a shell of what is now Bulldog Stadium. Brooks, currently Concordia’s Associate Vice President for Student Affairs, saw an opportunity to stage a competition in front of a large audience.
“I’m over there 9 at night,” said Brooks of an Independence Day early in his college career as a Bulldog vaulter. “Thousands of people are converging. In every direction you looked everything was full, all gathered around the football field. There wasn’t a whole lot going on before the fireworks. I’m thinking, ‘How sweet would that be to put on a show for these people?'”
In the years to follow, Brooks spearheaded the operation along with Berry (current Concordia and Seward High pole vault coach). Both became accomplished Concordia vaulters and both future coaches of the sport. And both seemed to realize they had something special, even from the very first go round. The event got another boost when it moved to the Seward streets, with the city’s approval, in 1997.
From its beginnings as an event with a basic purpose of providing high-level college athletes a summer competition to its present state in which virtually all ages are welcome, the Fourth of July pole vault has been a smashing success. Everything came together without a clear trajectory when it first commenced.
“We had no idea,” Berry said. “We didn’t sit there and say ‘this is our business plan on how we’re going to develop street vault.’ It was, this is what we want to do for fun. It just went.”
It went so well that Berry does not even have to worry about promotion or marketing. More than 80 participants of varying ages showed up last year, and at least that many can be expected again in 2014, according to Berry.
What’s even more incredible is the spectrum of people who flock to Seward. It’s not uncommon for children as young as four or five years old or adults well over 40 to take part.
And they come from coast to coast, including residents of California and New York. Berry said the current list of registries pulls from Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Minnesota, South Dakota and Colorado. “We literally had to pull it back because we couldn’t handle all the people who competed,” Brooks said. “But we didn’t want this to be just for elite competitors. We wanted a mixture of a whole range of people. My kids competed at four and five years old.
“Now it’s expanded to two runways. I thought Jason was crazy for doing that considering how much work it was just to set up one.” Berry, who took over the role of point man from Brooks, believed a second runway and pit were needed to make the event run much quicker. In reality, the second runway (built by Berry himself) allowed the number of competitors to explode even more. Despite a start time early in the morning, it remains a challenge to complete the competition by the time the parade begins at 4 p.m.
“The morning of the Fourth we’re usually there at 6:30 in the morning,” Berry said. “We get to hear the anvil firing. The runway opens for warm ups at 8 o’clock. That means people start showing up at 7:15-7:30. Every year my goal is to get done by 1 or 2 o’clock and we never get done until like 5.
“The goal lately has been to get done by the time the parade starts.” The length of the competition never seems to bother the throng of onlookers, some first-timers amazed at the spectacle of a street vault sprawled across Fourth Street, just down from Sparetime Lounge & Grill. Fans gather on all sides, and they get into it. All of these factors combine for a special experience. Just ask 2014 Concordia graduate and All-American Shelby Yelden, who will be jumping on the Fourth for the 10th time.
“Part of it is the raised wooden runway is a fast runway,” Yelden said. “So then there’s usually a lot of PR’s on the Fourth. It’s a lot of fun. There are a lot of people around town walking by that see it. Some people don’t even know it’s going on and you tell them. They’re like, ‘what, you vault in the street?'” That type of reaction has become less common as the word continues to spread. Seward represents more than just a holiday getaway for many of the top high school vaulters in the state. In return, Berry’s Bulldog pole vault program receives a recruiting boost.
“If you look at our recruits over the years, the majority of them jumped on the Fourth of July,” Berry said. “As far as recruiting, all the good pole vaulters in the state know about the Fourth. It’s a destination for them.”
“They talk about it. Kids will be out at state track and one of the good vaulters will say, ‘I’m going to go jump on the Fourth.’ Next thing you know it spreads. It’s fun to overhear that.”
Fun is what the Fourth of July Pole Vault Competition is all about. Berry and Brooks never got into it for financial gain. “We’ve never made a lot of money on it,” Brooks said. “One year we didn’t do it because it’s so much work. The Seward Fourth of July committee approached us and said, ‘Would you please bring it back?’ There were people that were disappointed it wasn’t there. Now it’s become a staple. People walk by and they pause and stand there. They spend hours watching it.”
Those long hours that begin with set up on the night of July 3 are all worth it for Berry. There’s just one other thing he’d like to indulge in on Friday.
“My goal every year is to get a funnel cake. I never get done in time to get a funnel cake,” he said.
As Berry said, “I never turn down a pole vaulter.”
In other words, people who want to just ‘give it a try’ will be turned way for safety reasons.