DURHAM, N.C. - The Duke women's track & field program has produced ten ACC champions over the past four seasons, and half of them have come in one event — the pole vault.
A Blue Devil has won the conference's indoor pole vault title for the last three yers in a row, and the outdoor title two of the last three years. Yes, it's true that most of those recent podium finishes belonged to one dynamic performer. Megan Clark claimed the indoor and outdoor ACC titles in 2015, repeated indoors in 2016 and did a whole lot more outside the league in earning first team All-America honors in both years. She is one of just eight collegians ever to clear 15 feet in the event, and her career was so loaded with superlatives that she was nominated for the NCAA Woman of the Year Award as a senior last spring.
Clark set the bar high, but now that she has moved on it has become abundantly apparent that her high-flying specialty was not a one-woman domain at Duke. After training alongside Clark the past two years, junior Madison Heath has vaulted into a starring role for the 2017 Blue Devils. She continued the program's streak of ACC indoor titles back in February, and last month she won the outdoor crown at the conference meet in Atlanta, giving her the season sweep.
Heath's emergence comes as no surprise to Duke associate head coach Shawn Wilbourn, who is in his ninth season of guiding the Blue Devil pole vaulters and multi athletes (decathlon, heptathlon, etc.). While Clark was busy re-writing the record books and piling up accolades the past two seasons, Heath was quietly making her own strides into the realm of elite Division I competition. She qualified for the NCAA outdoor national championships, along with Clark, in both 2015 and 2016. Last year alone she won two meets and took second or third in 10 others, including the Penn Relays, where Clark and Heath went 1-2, and ACCs, where the Duke duo went 1-3 both indoors and outdoors.
“Madison has kind of carried on the pole vault tradition here by winning ACC indoors this year…and she's one of the top vaulters in the East region and the country,” Wilbourn said. “It was nice to see her do well as a freshman but also each year get a little bit better, and this year with Megan gone to be the leader of the other young pole vaulters in the program.”
Heath's junior season concludes with her third straight trip to NCAA outdoor nationals June 7-10. Earlier in the year she made her first appearance at NCAA indoors, where she placed 13th to take second-team All-America honors.
Her outdoor season included wins at four meets as well as a new personal best. That came at the Pacific Coast Intercollegiate in California, where she cleared 14 feet, 3.25 inches. Clark is the only Blue Devil ever to go higher.
Heath and Wilbourn both see even better marks on the horizon as she continues to polish her technique.
“The pole vault is insanely technical,” Heath said. “One thing we've been working on a lot this year is my swing after I take off. One thing I'm pretty good at is I have a really good takeoff. I bring a lot of speed in. I move really big poles, but I do not flip upside down as well as some other girls. Megan was the opposite — she was really good at flipping upside down and working off the top of the pole but her takeoff was not as good. But by the end of her senior year she really hammered out her takeoff and the swing, which made her really, really good.
“I've got one of those components. My takeoff is usually good but my swing tends to be delayed, so we've been working on keeping the takeoff I have and adding a faster, more powerful swing. I'm progressing and getting close but it's not quite there yet.”
“I compare it to golf,” Wilbourn added. “You can lose your swing at certain times if you're not careful, so the technical part of pole vaulting is something we're working on every practice session, just trying to clean up her technique. The thing she is working on the hardest is her strength to body weight ratio. You have to be able to control your body in the air and on a pole, so that's the biggest thing we've been working on and are still working on. As she continues to get stronger, we're looking for higher heights.”
Like many pole vaulters, Heath brought a gymnastics background to the sport. She was a gymnast for nine years of her childhood, then got immersed in volleyball and thought she might play Division I in that sport. She led her Fontainebleau High School team to the Louisiana state championship her sophomore year. When one of her teammates suggested she join the track team during the volleyball offseason, she was quickly directed toward the pole vault after her coach heard about her history as a gymnast. By the time she graduated she owned the state indoor and outdoor records, two state titles and a pair of All-America certificates.
Along with solid coaching at her high school, Heath was fortunate to live only 30 minutes away from 2008 U.S. Olympian Erica Bartolina, who provided further expert training at her pole vaulting club. Heath continues to vault with Bartolina when she is at home for winter break.
Heath was attracted to Duke by the academic rigor (she's a pre-med student) but also by the possibility of taking her pole vault game to the next level. Although Clark's career had not yet reached its zenith when Heath was being recruited, Heath was enticed by seeing how much Clark had already improved under Wilbourn's coaching.
And now that Heath has also risen to new heights, it's obvious that something special is going on in pole vaulting at Duke. Three underclassmen join Heath in the vault contingent this season and all show promise. At the recent ACC meet, for example, Duke had the top three finishers and four of the top six. Freshman Laura Marty, the Washington state high school record holder, has been particularly impressive with her second place showing at ACC outdoors and fourth at ACC indoors. In the California meet, Marty turned in the best vault ever by a freshman at Duke when she cleared 13-9.25. She will be joining Heath at NCAAs this month. Sophomore Nati Sheppard, a Florida state prep titlist, placed third in the ACC, while freshman Chesney Ward, a North Carolina state prep champ, took sixth.
And next year the program will add another top talent in Becky Arbiv, a standout from Atlanta whose PR is just a fraction below Marty's Duke freshman standard.
“We couldn't have a program as good as we do without a good coach,” Heath noted. “And then having girls like Megan and me put up bigger heights after coming in lower. Megan improved a lot, I've improved a lot, and I think that says a lot to our coach's ability and the ability of our program to bring in lots of girls and improve them. Having that developmental record out there for our program and having such big vaulters has allowed us to recruit even bigger vaulters.
“I think the program is about to explode, and it already is growing so much. Megan was good, I think I'm good, but the people coming in younger than us have a very good shot to be better than me and Megan. I think that's a really good thing. I know a lot of people would love to have their school record up there forever, which is great, but I think it's really exciting to not only have done well but to have created something for your school and your team.”
What's being created is a niche community of specialists with a reputation and track record of accomplishment. Heath is so optimistic about the trajectory of Duke pole vaulting that one of her goals is to help the Blue Devils sweep the top four or five spots in the ACC championship meets next season when she is a senior.
“The last couple of years we've become known around the country as a program that develops female pole vaulters,” said Wilbourn, who also coached two-time ACC champion Amy Fryt in 2009-10. “It fits with Duke. Female pole vaulters tend to be academically inclined, we have the facilities in place and we've had a couple here who've had success and we've been able to build on that. Pole vaulters across the country see that, and if they are looking for a place to be great in academics and athletics, there are only a couple of schools like that. We're able to recruit and sell what we've done in the past. It's in place and we're excited about the future of it.
And no one fits the profile better than Heath with her psychology major, chemistry minor and athletic proclivity.
“Duke will definitely make you work for all of it, but I'm excited because I really feel like I'm doing what I love,” she said. “I like the vault a lot, I want to do well in the vault, but also I just love vaulting for the sake of vaulting. I think it's a lot of fun and it's something that I'm excited to even have the privilege to do it, much less do it well. And I would say the same thing academically. I love studying psychology. I love my pre-med classes. They are hard but overall I still feel very excited to have the privilege of being here studying these things…and being in these extremely intense but helpful classes. It's been intense, but it's been intense for the better.”
First In Flight
Duke's top five pole vaulters all-time and their best marks (outdoors)
Feet (Meters) Year Career Notes
Megan Clark 15-2.25 (4.63) 2016 3 ACC titles, 4-time All-America
Madison Heath 14-3.25 (4.35) 2017 2 ACC titles, 2-time All-America
Jillian Schwartz 14-2.00 (4.31) 2001 3 ACC titles, 3-time All-America,
2 Olympics, 4 World Championships
Laura Marty 13-9.25 (4.20) 2017 Duke freshman record
Amy Fryt 13-9.00 (4.19) 2010 2 ACC titles, 2-time All-America