Photo by Jim Stroup

Running as fast as you can some 45 yards while hoisting a flexible pole nearly three times your height is difficult enough.

by Juliet Crichton

Running as fast as you can some 45 yards while hoisting a flexible pole nearly three times your height is difficult enough.

But use that pole to fling yourself, momentarily upside down, some 18 feet in the air over a horizontal bar and then cascade back down, without seeing your landing, into a pit that resembles a giant inflated bed: That's entering another realm.

Requiring some 36 distinct movements in the span of about a second, pole vaulting is a complex endeavor. With one wrong move or equipment malfunction, an athlete can overshoot the pit and plummet onto a less-forgiving surface.

Pole vaulter Torben Laidig has, of course, had that happen. And still he says, "Once you're over the bar and begin falling back to the pit, it's definitely the best feeling in the world." Indeed.

Video by J. Scott Parker

Pole vaulting may be the perfect event for an athlete who's not afraid to take chances. Laidig came to Virginia Tech, sight unseen, from his native Germany on the good word of fellow Germans and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) champion pole vaulters Stephan Munz, now a doctoral student and a volunteer assistant coach at Tech, and Martina Schultze, Tech's record holder and a five-time ACC champion, only the second woman in conference history to win three straight outdoor titles.

Laidig, who arrived at Tech vaulting 5.20 meters (17'-1"), achieved a personal best and set a new program record at seemingly every meet during a remarkable 2016 season: 5.62 meters (18'-5.25") indoors, an ACC record; and 5.60 meters (18'-4.5") outdoors, breaking Tech's all-time record set in 2006.

In early June, carrying exceptional momentum into the NCAA track and field championships in Eugene, Oregon, Laidig delivered, clearing 5.55 meters (18'-2.5") to claim second.

Named to the ALL-ACC Academic Team, Laidig is pursuing a dual degree in biochemistry and biological sciences with a minor in chemistry, heady stuff for a nationally competitive athlete. "In Germany, an athlete can't combine school and sports," he said. "I'm grateful to be able to do that here."

High-flying legacy

At the ACC outdoor track and field championships in mid-May in Tallahassee, Florida, Tech pole vaulters Chris Uhle, Torben Laidig, Deakin Volz, Jeffrey Linta, Jared Allison, James Stek, and 2015 ACC champion Brad Johnson claimed the top seven spots, respectively, for an unprecedented sweep in the field of 16 competitors.

"It felt like a team practice," said Laidig. "The focus was there, and it was a really good meet."

Video by HokieVision

Following NCAA regionals, four vaulters advanced to the championship meet, Tech's largest-ever group in a single event to advance.

The team's success has been sustained in large part by the Hokies' volunteer pole vault coach, Bob Phillips (B.S. physical education '82, M.Acct. '84, Ph.D. accounting '89), a 1980 All-American and 1999 inductee into the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame. Phillips also happens to teach information technology at nearby Radford University.

Now in his 33rd season, Phillips has quietly built a powerhouse in Blacksburg: Tech holds 29 individual titles in pole vaulting, more than all other ACC schools combined; and since joining the conference for the 2005 season, Hokies have won nine of 12 men's outdoor gold medals, including the last three.

One accomplishment is missing, however. "Our coach has never had a [national] pole vault champion," said Laidig, who came very close this past season. "He sacrifices so much for us all. He deserves it."