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Kelso pole-vaulter overcomes neck injury to win big at state
By Zach Buchanan / The Daily News | Posted: Saturday, June 18, 2011 10:00 pm | 1 Comment
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Bill Wagner / The Daily News
On his way to winning the state 3A pole vault competition, Kelso's Jonathan Wishard had more obstacles to clear than most other competitors.
It was twilight last Aug. 9 when Kelso High School's star pole vaulter Jonathan Wishard attempted something he'd done dozens of times before on the trampoline at his grandmother's house.
But this time, he came out of his double front flip too soon and landed squarely on his head.
He heard a crack in his neck. A flash of pain bolted down his body. His toes and fingertips tingled. Stars "were flashing everywhere."
Miraculously, he wasn't paralyzed.
"From all the doctors that looked at the X-rays, they said he's a very, very lucky kid that he's even moving," recalled his mother, Delyn Wishard.
But the docs had bad news. His fifth veterbra was broken in two places. They way his neck was misaligned, there was a risk of further injury from even minor jolts.
And Jonathan, who was considered a lock to win the 2011 state championship his senior year - and perhaps best his brother Jordan's school record of 15 feet, 3 inches - would never pole vault again.
"It wasn't until the doctor told me that I couldn't pole vault, that's when it was hard," said Jonathan, who just turned 19 and graduated from Kelso last week. "I wanted to go to college for pole vaulting. I knew if I was going to be a state champion, it would be in pole vaulting. It was definitely a downer."
Over the next six months, though, a miraculous story emerged.
Jonathan had done front flips off of his knees before, and didn't expect this one to be much different. The trampoline at his grandmother's house, just a few blocks from his own, was double-padded and double-springed, ensuring maximum airtime.
Jonathan timed his flips by looking for two flashes of light, measuring a full rotation by the re-emergence of sunlight. This time, though, it was dusk. There were no flashes, and Jonathan pulled out too early and landed on his head, breaking his neck and his left hand in two places each.
"It was like the biggest crack I've ever heard," he said. "I knew right when I landed I'd screwed something up bad. I've done it before. I've landed like that before, just not that much impact. I usually just get right up."
Jonathan felt a shooting pain and "extreme tingling" in his toes and fingertips. After about 15 seconds, he regained control of his legs and tried to get up, but he gave up after a shock of pain sprinted down his spine.
While waiting 20 minutes for the paramedics, he periodically hit himself in the legs to make sure he could feel them. He glanced at his left hand and saw his index finger bent unnaturally over his other three.
Jonathan was taken to St. John Medical Center for a diagnosis and then transferred to Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, where he stayed for a week while doctors considered operating. They decided against it. For someone of Jonathan's age, any operation carried the risk of developing arthritis and the need for further operations later in life, his mother recalled.
Instead, his doctors decided they'd hope for a normal recovery.
They had no idea how abnormal it would be.
Jonathan started his senior year on time, but with a hard plastic brace around his neck and a cast on his left hand.
He can't remember how many times he explained to his classmates what happened. It was embarrassing, he said, although his mother helped him keep it in perspective.
"I told him, ‘At least you're walking and not rolling,'" Delyn Wishard said.
He wore the neck brace just shy of four months. When he took it off, his neck muscles had weakened so much his head felt "like it (weighed) 50 pounds."
"He couldn't even carry a book bag around," said Kelso track coach Joe Kreider.
Jonathan immediately started physical therapy to strengthen his neck. He was cleared on March 4 to resume activities with the track team.
Except for pole vaulting.
"There was a little bit of talk about him pole vaulting," Kreider said. "I was more interested in Jonathan staying healthy for his life."
Sitting out wasn't easy. For his first three years, he was almost exclusively a pole vaulter for the Hilanders. As a junior, Jonathan narrowly missed qualifying for state despite competing in a talented field of vaulters.
Jonathan and Kelso pole vault coach Tyler Beavers knew that coming into his senior year, Jonathan had already vaulted higher than any other returning competitor. The 2011 state championship was his to lose — until the injury.
"He'd come up to me at meets while I was coaching other kids, and I could tell he was down because that was his event," Beavers said. "He couldn't even stand there and watch with me. It just upset him. He'd just walk off and go away."
One of the places Jonathan went was the high jump, in which he was competing. But he wondered why could he do that, landing often on his neck with no ill effects, and not the pole vault?
Jonathan's parents asked the same question, prompting them to get a second opinion from a doctor who had seen the original X-rays after the injury.
The results were stunning. Jonathan's neck had healed itself perfectly, showing no signs that a break ever occurred.
"He said, ‘I would never be able to tell that he'd ever broke his neck from the looks of this. His vertebrae actually realigned themselves just perfect,' " Beavers said, quoting the doctor.
Kreider needed more convincing. After discussions with the Wishards and with Kelso athletic director Ray Cattin, Kreider gave his consent.
"The bottom line was it was a family decision, so we did it," Kreider said.
It was April 25, two weeks before the district meet.
Jonathan would have to get into vaulting form at an accelerated pace. After a few days of practice, Jonathan won the Elden Kellar Invite in Hillsboro, Ore., one of the biggest invitational meets of the year, with a vault of 13 feet, 6 inches.
He would have gone higher, but Kreider wanted to be cautious.
"He was in first place, and I was just like, ‘Let's pull the plug,'" Kreider said.
Jonathan breezed through districts and regionals, winning both. His form was perfect. Still, Kreider couldn't get those worst-case scenarios out of his head. What if Jonathan landed awkwardly and broke his neck again?
"I definitely did not want a tragedy out there," Kreider said.
Everyone who knew and loved him cringed each time Jonathan planted his pole and launched himself into the air. Jonathan, though, acted like he'd never set foot on that trampoline.
At districts, a competitor shattered his pole right in front of Jonathan. The Kelso senior was unfazed.
"He was sure of himself, and that's probably the most important thing," Kreider said.
The closest thing to a blip in Jonathan's confidence came at the state meet at Mount Tahoma High in Tacoma, where he estimated there was a 15 mph sidewind. If anything could affect Jonathan's confidence, a heavy gust would.
According to Beavers, Jonathan couldn't properly plant his pole even once during warm-ups.
"I just grabbed ahold of him and said, ‘Jonathan, you didn't come this far, all this didn't happen for you to not do this,'" Beavers said.
"It was just mind over matter," Jonathan added. "This wind is not going to defeat me, I'm just going to do what I have to do."
Jonathan cleared 14 feet, 9 inches for the first time ever to win the state title. It was the highest mark cleared by any vaulter in the state all year, in any classification.
"I was pretty psyched," he said in his understated way.
Beavers was a little more ecstatic.
"Who ever thought of it? " Beavers asked rhetorically. "There's no way this kid, just not even seven months ago, if you'd went to his house and saw him in this brace and his hand in this big huge cast. ... It was just sweet glory. I was so excited for him, because that dream of being a state champion and actually vaulting again ever just came into reality."
The Next Step
Jonathan still hopes to pole vault in college. He said he has scholarship offers from Eastern Washington, Pacific Lutheran and Pacific University, but he doesn't know how the schools will react when they learn of his injury. His mother would prefer that he pursue a graphic design degree at the Art Institute of Portland and stay out of pole vaulting.
But it's his life, she concedes. Her son will do what he wants.
For his part, Jonathan doesn't think of the injury at all. He still jumps on the trampoline at his grandmother's house, although he sticks to backflips.
After all he's been through, Jonathan is still disappointed that he didn't beat his brother's school record. While others may consider walking again his greatest triumph, Jonathan doesn't want to be defined by an injury he's conquered.
That's why he pole vaulted again in the first place.
"I just try not to think about it," he said. "Mind over matter."
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