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Westhill's Pena pole vaults for the stars
By Rich DePreta
Posted: 02/12/2009 10:58:41 PM EST
STAMFORD -- Right now, Mike Pena is the stealth pole vaulter.
But the Westhill High School senior won't be under the radar much longer.
While the Vikings will be competing Friday at the Class LL boys and girls indoor track championships at Hillhouse High School, Pena won't be in New Haven.
After being ineligible during the FCIAC indoor track regular season, Pena became eligible last Friday.
Because of that status change, Pena received a waiver to take part in the boys pole vault as a guest at the FCIAC Championships last Saturday at Staples High.
Despite limited practice, Pena cleared 13-feet-0, which ironically was the exact height cleared by Staples' Paul Chandler who won the event.
It had been hoped that since Pena cleared the basic CIAC standard of 10-feet-6 by a wide margin, he would be able to compete as a point-earning member in the Class LL championship.
But alas, as the CIAC so often does when something involves Fairfield County athletes, Pena was told to stay home.
So Pena now must turn his attention to the FCIAC Boys Outdoor Track season that he is fully eligible for.
The other venue that Pena is free to display his copious talents in the pole vault will be a Junior Olympic Track & Field Indoor Championships meet being held at Yale University in late March.
"I respect the CIAC's decision. I won't argue or appeal it. I should have been eligible at the start of indoor season instead of the end," Pena said. "But if there was a chance to pole vault as a guest at the LL meet, I would love to. There should be some cases where an athlete really wants to compete, they should consider guest status."
And as a senior, Pena can't simply wait until next year.
All the 6-foot-0, 159-pound Pena can do is shoot for grand heights that will get him noticed across this vast internet nation.
Pena's love affair with the pole vault began very innocently during his sophomore year.
"Coach Perry (Neal Perry, pole vault coaching specialist) came around to football practice one day and asked 'Are there any potential pole vaulters here?' He suggested it to me so I tried it," Pena recalled. "I was intrigued. I was fascinated. Pole vaulting is an adrenlin rush. To be up in the air after a power run and take flight is amazing."
And after 2 1/2 years of incorporating the mechanics of the sport into his repetoire, Pena remains thrilled with reaching for new heights.
"Every pole vault is unique. Every jump knowing I can do better drives me," Pena said. "The science of pole vaulting is broad. The physics of pole vaulting is specific. There's inertia. there's momentum. Pole vaulting is one big science problem."
Pole vaulting was no problem the summer of Pena's sophomore year. He placed first among Connecticut Jr. Olympic vaulters and second in New England to qualify for the Jr. Olympic Nationals in California.
Pena's path to glory was shortcircuited by the airline that lost his pole. Using a strange pole is never a good idea when competing at a Jr. Olympic Nationals event.
"Still the experience of being in California was spectacular," Pena said.
As his body grows and he clears more heights, Pena has to change poles. A fiberglass pole's thickness and flexibility changes is based on your weight. A pole's length gets longer as the heights you clear get higher.
"I have two poles I use now," Pena elaborated. "The first is 13 feet long and for someone 165 pounds. I just warmup with that or if I'm clearing mediocre, pedestrian heights. The second pole I call 'Big Mama.' It's 14 feet long and for someone 170 pounds. It's harder to pick up and push along on my run toward the vault pit."
A good pole vaulter like a good decathlon specialist needs to be fast and strong.
So, two hours of vaulting practice 5 days a week is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of working out for Pena.
"I was a wide receiver on the football team. So all the weightlifting we did in season taught me the importance of power," Pena said. "I do a lot of jumping up and down a small flight of stationary steps for my legs. It's called Plyometrics. I also use a pullup bar and I do walking handstands to get used to being upside down."
Pena has also spent a number of Sundays at a camp for run by law professor/pole vault specialist Russ Versteg in Niantic.
"I'm at 13-feet-0 now which ties the Westhill school record. If I had competed the entire indoor season, I think I'd be at 14-feet-6," Pena said. "I'm looking forward to the Jr. Olympics meet because I dream about the Olympic Games every day."
Coach Perry, who was a pole vaulter of note at Temple University until he broke four steel vaulting poles in a span of two weeks.
"The coach asked me nicely to find another endeavor," Perry laughed.
But Perry is sure he picked a winner in Pena.
"It takes a couple of years to be proficient at pole vaulting. And Mike has been extremely dedicated to that," Perry said. "There's no limit to where he can take it now."
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