Orchard Park vaulter seeking new heights at Kent State

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (WIVB) — Mike Auble, her coach, has referred to Leah Pasqualetti as “the most intrinsically driven athlete” he’s ever known, a “silent assassin.”

Pasqualetti isn’t all that quiet once you get her going. She’s a bright, engaging young woman with what Auble calls a “Minnie Mouse” voice. But when the subject of the Olympics came up, she did fall silent for a few seconds.

“I think about it pretty often,” she said with a laugh. 

Why wouldn’t she think about it? Pasqualetti, who graduated from Orchard Park High this past spring, is one of the top pole vaulters in the country. In June, she broke the national under-20 record, clearing 14 feet, 8 1-4 inches to beat the country’s No. 1-ranked vaulter, Paige Summers, in California.

Pasqualetti, the latest in a remarkable string of Western New York girls to excel in the pole vault, is now a freshman at Kent State in northeast Ohio. She was recruited by most of the top programs in America, but she chose Kent State because of coach Bill Lawson, a 10-time MAC coach of the year who has won a combined nine indoor and outdoor league titles in women’s track.

Lawson is also a former pole vaulter, which certainly helped.

“It was very important for me to find a coach who was willing to help me get to where I want to go,” Pasqualetti said Monday from her dorm at Kent. “There were a lot of coaches in the nation, they kind of look at you as an athlete and they see where you are right now. They don’t have any plans on improving you. 

“This is especially true in the pole vault,” she said, “because it takes a lot of time and resources to better someone. Oftentimes, high schoolers are recruited and stay at the same heights they were in high school.  I wanted to improve, so I looked at schools where coaches were going to stick around and be there for my full four years.”

Pasqualetti is driven to be great, as Auble said. She’s not content with a national high school record. She might have a soft, sweet voice, but she’s a young woman with lofty aspirations. When she talks about “getting where she wants to go,” she’s looking to the sky, where vaulters see their dreams from upside-down.

“I want to take it as far as God will let me,” she said, “and be a part of the sport as long as I’m physically capable. So I’m not sure where it will take me, whether it will take me to a career outside of college. But that’s the goal that I’m hoping to achieve. That’s the one that I’m willing to work towards right now.”

Right now, she’s settling in at Kent State and thrilled to be training with her new teammates and acclimating to college life — albeit in an environment that is still compromised by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s the best thing ever,” she said. “It’s so cool, being able to practice around other people, but in a safe way. We’re in our preseason phase now. So we do a lot of general conditioning, more endurance, more explosiveness. Today we’re running up and down the steps of our football stadium.

“Weight-lifting later tonight. It’s so interesting how we do it now during a pandemic. They moved the equipment outside. Yeah, and we have to wear masks up to the point where we start moving, and if we’re ever inside the fieldhouse, masks at all times. We make it work!”

Auble, who coached Pasqualetti out of the Warsaw Pole Vault Club (a good 45-minute drive from Orchard Park), wasn’t at all surprised to know that Leah would be thrilled by her new college experience.

“Oh my gosh!” Auble said. “I don’t think I’ve ever met someone that just loves every aspect of life more than Leah.”

Pasqualetti has loved vaulting from the moment she picked up a pole at 13. She was a natural athlete, and she could run fast. In the seventh grade, she decided to go out for the track team at Orchard Park. Her older sister and only sibling, Lena, was one of the team leaders. It would be a good way to bond.

“As it happened, we needed pole vaulters to go to the varsity meets,” Pasqualetti recalled. “That got me a spot on the varsity team, and the teammates were just the best thing ever. We had so much fun with it, helping each other out and going to practices.”

She was 5-2, about 100 pounds. Pasqualetti said she used her strength to will herself over the bar. She and Lena did sprint workouts, which made her quicker on the runways. She lifted weights to get stronger. It took awhile, but she has always loved hard work. She slowly got better. Her will has never been an issue.

“Starting out, I had continued doing gymnastics and track at the same time,” she said. “It wasn’t until my junior year that I said, ‘OK, I think I can use pole vaulting to get into a school’. I figured I’d get to spend more time doing what I love and perhaps get a little better and be able to continue in college.”

Pasqualetti cleared 10 feet as an eighth-grader. In 10th grade, she quit gymnastics to devote herself to track and field. She blossomed as a junior at Orchard Park, winning the state indoor pole vault title. She took it to another level this year, when she became one of the best in the land.

In February at Houghton College, she cleared 14 feet, 3 inches to break the state indoor high school record set by Mary Saxer of Lancaster in 2005. A month later, she defended her state indoor title. The pandemic intruded, knocking out the high school outdoor season. But in June, she staked a claim as perhaps the best teen-aged vaulter in the world with her record jump in California. In July, she and Auble went on a road trip where she competed in four meets. She finished fourth in a meet with professionals. 

Pasqualetti missed her three tries at 15 feet in the California event, an unimagined height for a high school girl. In fact, 15 feet is the minimum standard to earn a spot in the Olympic Trials. She had dreams of getting to the Trials this year. Now that the Tokyo Games have been postponed to 2021, she’ll still have a chance. 

She’s not lacking for inspiration. Fredonia native Jenn Suhr is the top women’s vaulter in American history. Suhr competed in three Olympics, winning silver in Beijing in 2008 and gold in London in 2012. 

Leah is well aware of the legacy of female vaulters in the Buffalo area. She said it was hard to miss, competing in meets where the names of Saxer, Suhr, or former Iroquois star Tiffany Maskulinski were in the record books. 

“Having those athletes from the area, you grow up looking at these, these giants,” she said. “We’d go to a meet and see ‘Mary Saxer of Lancaster,  14 feet.’  You don’t think it’s possible when you’re just starting out. But you know it is, because someone cleared it, and it’s something you reach for!”

Pasqualetti used an Altius Adrenaline pole, which was designed by Jenn Suhr and her trainer/husband, Rick, when she broke the state indoor record. Rick Suhr also trained Saxer and Maskulinski. He works out of a quonset hut in his back yard in Churchville. Auble has been training top vaulters for years in the ‘Track Shack” facility in his garage in Warsaw for years. 

It’s an odd coincidence that some of the best American pole vaulters have been developed in makeshift training facilities 30 miles apart in Western New York. 

“Honestly, the one factor everything has in common is Rick Suhr,” Auble said. “I always say he’s the best coach in the world, and we’ve had the privilege of being influenced by him. I’m not a fraction of the coach he is, but just hanging around him a little bit, a little bit of stuff is going to rub off, you know?”

Auble said the Suhrs have been accommodating and gracious, a helpful resource. It’s no wonder that Leah looks up to Jenn. 

“Yes, Jenn Suhr is one of my biggest role models,” Pasqualetti said. “I love how she carries herself and the strength that she has. She’s been a pioneer in our sport for the longest time. She’s handled all the obstacles in her career with such grace, and never gave up.”

Suhr had made a comeback and was training for the Trials at age 38 when the pandemic hit. She didn’t take up pole vaulting until after college, where she was a basketball star at Roberts Wesleyan. She’s an inspiration to Leah, who is half Jenn’s age, evidence that you can continue to get better with age.

Suhr is 6-foot tall, which was an asset in her vaulting career. The question is whether Pasqualetti’s smaller stature — she’s 10 inches shorter than Jenn — will limit her ceiling as she competes at the higher levels. 

“Someone who’s really good with physics and biomechanics would say, ‘Yeah, your height is eventually going to be a factor,’” Auble said. “But I think a more important factor is speed. I’ll be honest, I don’t feel like she’s even scratched the surface of how fast she is.”

Leah agrees. She said she’s learned to live with her size. She said there are benefits to being shorter. In the end, you still have to get over the bar.

“The short girls, we’re very quick to get upside-down and perhaps we’re a little bit faster,” she said. “There’s tons of different people who can be good at pole vault. So no, I don’t see it as an advantage or a disadvantage.”

There’s no telling how high she can go. Pasqualetti won’t compete in college until December, but she’s already one of the best in the nation. That 14-8 1/4 jump in June would have been good for second at the 2019 NCAA championships. If she gets to 15 feet, she can attend the Olympic Trials next spring. Auble figures it’s the 2024 Games when she could really be ready. 

For now, she’s a wide-eyed college freshman, reveling in the workouts and the schoolwork and all the joys of being young and full of possibility. She hasn’t decided on a major, though law school could be in her future. 

“Right now, I’m undecided,” she said. “I’m a little embarrassed to admit it. But I love writing and English.”

Give her time and she might re-write the record books.

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning digital reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2020. See more of his work here.

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