Suhrs have a story to tell, and it’s not done yet

Jerry Sullivan

(WIVB) – Rick Suhr decided it was time back in mid-April, at the height of the pandemic. He and his wife, Jenn, were driving back to New York from eastern Texas, where they own a winter home and spend several months of the year training in a workout facility. 

Suhr had been considering a book about Jenn’s pole-vaulting career ever since she won Olympic gold in London in 2012. They’d sat down with a couple of writers over the years, but the book never quite came together. At one point, one would-be author told Rick he should do it.

The country was shutting down. Rick remembers that ride back to Churchville, how quiet and empty the roads were at the time. He made the trip in 22 hours, stopping only twice for gas. He had a lot of time to think.  And once he got home, he’d have a lot of time to write. 

“I decided, ‘Hey, the only way to do this and capture the feeling is from our perspective,” Rick Suhr said by phone on Friday. “And that’s what I did. I went in the garage. I started writing, and I kept writing and kept writing and kept writing.

“It was long overdue,” he said. “Perhaps the time to come up with the book was in 2012, or before 2016. But it’s hard to write a book. It’s a tremendous amount of work.”

Suhr said the words and memories came pouring out onto his iPad. The result — “Running Into the Headwind” — is expected to be published sometime in the coming week on Amazon.  

Rick didn’t want to reveal too many details about the book. He’s always been something of a man of mystery, wary of public scrutiny.  But as the title suggests, it’s essentially the story of a coach and athlete struggling against long odds to reach the pinnacle of a sport — and stay there longer than imaginable.

“The story is inside you,” he said. “You have to share. There’s way too much knowledge and benefit to people out there who want to do something, whatever it is. It doesn’t have to be athletics, it could be business, writing, anything.

“It’s a book about constant obstacles over a lifetime, and how you are constantly hurdling and hurdling and hurdling.”

Jenn Suhr, who grew up in Fredonia as Jenn Stuczynski, had never pole vaulted when Rick saw her playing basketball back in 2004. Jenn, who is 6-feet tall, had been a record-setting hoop star at Roberts Wesleyan. Rick saw the makings of a potential pole vault champion. 

She was pursuing a master’s in psychology at the time, thinking of going into education. Jenn, never one to back down from a competitive challenge, gave it up to try pole vaulting. 

“She had to quit getting her master’s, go to a gas station and scrub bathrooms and work as a cashier,” Rick said, “to chase a dream because some crazy guy told her she could be a professional pole vaulter.

“What person in their right mind is going to leave their master’s program against the advice of every other person in her life and go after something that most people couldn’t even comprehend? Can you even make a living pole vaulting? It was crazy,” he said.

“But see, it’s in the struggles that you learn the passion.”

It’s all there in the book. Rick said it’s not all feel-good stuff. There’s some harsh things about the media, the track and field establishment. But it’s also the sort of book he wants young people to read, to find out how to achieve their dreams in life.

He said one of his brothers read the book and cried. He said Jenn cried when she read one chapter and was reminded of the struggles she endured on the way to becoming the greatest women’s pole vaulter in U.S. history, a two-time Olympic medalist and 17-time national champion.

“The title is kind of what the book is about,” Jenn said, “having to keep pursuing when you get knocked down, with people telling you ‘No, you can’t’, and going against the grain all the time.

“That was the feeling of it,” she said. “It was a constant battle and overcoming and getting knocked down and getting back up. Running into the headwinds, not only for pole vault, but in life.”

There were plenty of headwinds along the way. In 2011, Jenn was diagnosed with celiac disease, which had compromised her physically during that season. Like any pole vaulter, she had a series of injuries suffered in a brutal, punishing sport.

In 2016, she was in peak shape for the Rio Games and looking to repeat as gold medalist. Soon after arriving in Brazil, Jenn came down with a mysterious virus that attacked her respiratory system and left her ill and barely able to jump in the finals. 

Jenn wept in her brief interview in the media zone after finishing seventh, saying she had let Buffalo down. She has always felt a strong bond to her hometown, and the blue-collar ethos she considers a vital part of her own competitive character. 

In 2008, at her first Olympic, she won silver in Beijing, losing to Yelena Isinbayeva, the great Russian world record-holder. Rick was vilified in the national media for his harsh treatment of Jenn after her last jump, which was captured on NBC.

She later explained that it was a simple coach-athlete exchange, and said it wouldn’t have been a big deal if she had been a man. Of course, it would have helped if people knew that they were romantically involved at the time. They got married two years later.

So is there any, uh, romance, in the book? 

“It’s no Fifty Shades of Gray,” Rick said.

“That would be really funny,” Jenn said with a laugh. “That would be an interesting read!”

“In a way, it’s intimate,” he said. “I would say passionate would be the word. We’re pretty private. I’m not a very romantic guy.”

It’s really about the passion of a coach and his protege to overcome the odds. Suhr, who was a high school wrestling champion at Spencerport, is one of the finest pole vault coaches who ever lived. He coached three high school kids to national titles before Jenn came along, and he’s a two-time winner of the Ikkos award for the best coach in track and field — the only pole vault coach to do so. 

His wife, of course, is his greatest pupil. Rick said younger people assume Jenn took a conventional path. They don’t understand how tough it was. They’re also in awe. They see Jenn, who turns 39 in February, and marvel that she’s their mother’s age and out-jumping them by 3 feet.

“There’s no blueprint for this,” Rick said. “If I’m an athlete trying to be an Olympian or a state champion, this is the book. I’m not saying this to sell books, but because I want that kid to go after it. I don’t want to hear how you’re losing;, I want you to find a way to win. 

“The book finds a way to win. It’s one of the greatest sports stories. And it’s true, that’s the great thing about it! If I wrote a fictional book, it might not have been as good, because I’m not that creative.”

The thing is, the story isn’t finished yet. Jenn is still competing. In 2017, she retired, saying she had lost her passion for the sport. Rik said she got worn down mentally by a sport that drives many track and field athletes out of the sport. But a year later, she was back, and again competing at the highest levels. 

“We kind of rediscovered it by being around people who had the passion that I had when I was younger,” she said. “We go to Texas in the winter and we train around a bunch of college kids. And nothing will get your energy like a bunch of kids. 

“You surround yourself with that kind of energy and it wears off on you,” Jenn said. 

“Where can you get a three-time Olympic coach and a three-time Olympian working with you at the same time,” Rick said. “It’s a man and a woman, also.”

Suhr had the best jump in the world for half the 2020 indoor season. She finished second in national indoors by one jump. Jenn was looking toward the U.S. Trials and a fourth Olympics in Tokyo when the pandemic hit and the Games were postponed for a year.

“A year’s setback isn’t exactly what I was hoping for,” Jenn said. “It’s almost like one year equals two, like dog years.”

She and Rick laughed. “Jenn’s going to come to come out for warmups with a walker. She’ll be taking oxygen between jumps.”

Rick said Jenn is one of four or five women who could win in Tokyo. That’s if the Covid-19 eases enough to allow an Olympics. He puts it at 50-50, same as he did in March for the 2020 Games. Even if there’s a vaccine by then, who gets it first?

“Where are Olympians going to fall,” he said, “and coaches. Are we going to run an Olympics in front of no crowds? There’s a lot of scenarios here.”

Suhr will be 39 and a half if she competes in Tokyo. Most pole vaulters peak after 30. Some of the women she’s competing against are literally half her age, vaulters who admired her when they were little girls.

What a remarkable scenario it would be if Jenn actually won a gold medal next summer. It would make for a great ending to the story. As Rick says, it would be better than fiction. 

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