“We get started young,” Kyle Wait is saying.
It is a Friday morning in May, and Wait is talking about one of the quietest dynasties in Big 12 sports, one that you probably haven’t heard of.
In the state of Kansas, there are a few sports aphorisms that almost never fail. Bill Self will rule the Big 12 in basketball, and Bill Snyder will conjure some wizardry on the gridiron.
But Wait, a senior pole vaulter at Kansas State, is trying to explain something a little different. For the past three years, no high school has owned a Big 12 sport like Gardner Edgerton has owned the pole vault.
Wait, a former walk-on from Gardner Edgerton, has won two Big 12 outdoor pole vault titles and one indoor crown. It would have been three straight outdoor titles, too, if Kansas junior Casey Bowen, an old high school teammate and friend, hadn’t eclipsed him at the Big 12 Outdoor Track & Field Championships on May 18.
On that Sunday in Lubbock, Texas, Bowen cleared 18 feet (5.49 meters), earning his first Big 12 title, while Wait had to settle for second. One year earlier, the results had been flipped, Wait edging Bowen for the title. But that wasn’t all. K-State junior Tommy Brady, another Gardner Edgerton graduate, had finished in eighth.
“It’s almost like a community thing,” Wait says.
So how do you explain it? How does one high school in Kansas produce three of the most accomplished pole-vaulters in the Big 12? How does a community of more than 20,000 or so, in a span of two years, churn out two of the top college pole-vaulters in the country?
Bowen, a junior, has Olympic aspirations in 2016, and Wait dreams of a fruitful professional career as well. But first, all three Gardner guys will hit the track this week at the NCAA West Preliminary in Fayetteville, Ark., hoping to qualify for the NCAA Outdoor Championships in June. The prelims run Thursday through Saturday at McDonnell Field.
In some ways, Wait says, it will feel just like those summer evening practices on the track in Gardner, when it felt like a quarter of the town had dropped by to grab a pole and careen down the runway.
In some ways, Bowen says, it will feel just about right. Here’s a quick story, he says. On that final day of the Big 12 championships, when he and Wait were the only vaulters left, and the bar was raised to 18 feet, he took a deep breath and walked up to his old friend.
“Well,” Bowen said, turning to Wait, “we’re back in high school.”
The roots of the Gardner pole-vaulting empire stretch back more than three decades, to a now famous practice pit in a Gardner back yard.
The Buckingham brothers — Jeff and George — were two of the most elite young vaulters in the country, and their father had installed a pit at their home in the 1970s.
The brothers both enjoyed stellar careers at KU, and nearly three decades later, the city of Gardner is still attached to the pole vault.
Kyle Wait found the sport in seventh grade, one year before Bowen and Brady. His father, Darrell, had been a high jumper at K-State in the 1980s, and for a time, Wait thought his future was in that event. But there was something more comfortable about the vault, something cool about the mechanics of the pole vault.
One year later, Bowen and Brady entered middle school, following Wait to the pole vault pit. Bowen’s older brother had excelled at the sport, and Brady, lifelong friends with Wait, was just looking for something to do when he wasn’t playing basketball.
“It was just a community and kids of various ages falling in love with pole vault,” Brady says.
While more and more athletic and active kids were finding their way to the pole vault, coaches and administrators in Gardner conspired to nurture the young talent. The school would leave its $20,000 pole vault pit out for the summer, if somebody would volunteer to supervise the workouts and equipment. Thane Nonamaker, the long-time pole vault coach at Gardner Edgerton, quickly volunteered.
“From there,” Nonamaker says, “it kind of took flight.”
In another Kansas town, you might see a gymnasium full of pickup basketball on a summer night. In others, you might stumble upon a love affair with wrestling or baseball. At the track in Gardner, the sight was always a little bit different. Drive by the school on a summer night, and you might see 20 or 30 kids, all practicing the pole vault, hoping to become the next state champion.
“It helped to have each other,” Wait says.
For Gardner and the boys, the investment paid off. Wait won a state title his senior year, and Bowen did the same, vaulting 17 feet, 1 inch as a senior, the fifth-best high school mark in the country that year.
“They’re all kind of self-starting athletes,” says Tom Hays, the pole vault coach at Kansas. “They’re not going to wait for somebody to tell them to do it. They’re doers; they’re blue-collar-type guys.”
Here are two truths about the pole vault: You have to be a little crazy, of course. Who else would sprint down a straightaway and stab a long fiberglass pole into the ground, flipping 18 feet in the air?
But you also have to be prepared to work in the quiet.
Over nearly four years at K-State, Wait has racked up Big 12 titles and earned All-American status. But he wasn’t exactly what you would call a prized recruit. When Wait was leaving Gardner, he decided to attend K-State and major in Wildlife and Outdoor Enterprise Management. Some day, he says, he’d like to manage some private hunting land. So on a senior visit to Manhattan, he stopped by the track office and asked if he could walk on. Four years later, he’ll finish his career by trying to improve upon last year’s eighth-place finish at the NCAA Championships. And oh yeah, Wait has since earned a little scholarship money, he says, laughing.
Brady followed Wait on the walk-on route to K-State, while Bowen was something of a sought-after recruit in high school. That earned him all of a 50 percent scholarship to KU.
“That was plenty,” Bowen says, mentioning that men’s track can only dole out 12.6 scholarships for the whole team.
After finishing runner-up to Wait last year, Bowen has begun to break out this season. His season-best vault of 5.50 meters ranks is the 12th best in the nation, and he’s already set up a path toward an Olympic run in 2016. After redshirting during this year’s indoor season, Bowen will redshirt the outdoor season next year before having a full fifth year to compete in 2015-16.
“I figure if I have any chance,” Bowen says. “I might as well try it now.”
But before that, Bowen is just hopeful he can qualify for the NCAA championships. The top 12 finishes will move on, and the competition at the prelims is supposed to be fierce. Especially his two former high school teammates from Gardner.
“You don’t want to lose,” Bowen says, “but if I had to lose to anyone, Kyle and Tommy are the guys I’d want to lose to.”
NCAA West Prelims track and field
WHEN: Today through Saturday.
WHERE: Fayetteville, Ark.