RWM EXCLUSIVE: The Drive for Gold
BY CAURIE PUTNAM | PHOTOS BY TAMMY SWALES
When Jenn (Stuczynski) Suhr entered Roberts Wesleyan College as a freshman in 2000, she was planning a career in school psychology.
“If you asked me to list 100 things I would be doing after college, pole vaulting wouldn’t be on it,” said Jenn. “It wouldn’t even be close.”
Twelve years later, if you look at a list of the top 100 pole vaulters in the world, Jenn’s name is #1.
Jenn’s meteoric rise in the sport of pole vaulting is an incredible story of dedication, grit, growth, and teamwork in a sport traditionally known as being individual in nature.
Rochester Woman Magazine recently spent an afternoon with Jenn, her husband and Coach Rick Suhr, and their Great Pyrenees, Tundra– at their home and training facility in Riga to share Jenn’s story as she prepares to represent the United States in the London Summer Olympic Games next month.
Jenn was born on February 5, 1982 to Mark and Sue Stuczynski. She was raised in Fredonia – a village of about 11,000 in Chautauqua County, New York – where her parents own and operate the Fredonia Food Mart & Deli. Jenn’s parents were hard workers who instilled strong work ethics in Jenn, her older sister, and younger brother.
“We all worked there growing up,” Jenn said. “It was a rite of passage.”
Along with work, there was also much play. Jenn was attracted to sports at a young age and particularly excelled at basketball. She took her athletics seriously – fueled by an inner-competitive spirit she can’t remember not ever having.
“I’m a competitive person by nature,” Suhr said. “I got kicked off the go-karts when I was eight because I was being too competitive. I always wanted to win.”
In 2000 Jenn won the New York State pentathlon title as a senior. Her drive and natural athleticism attracted a plethora of basketball college coaches and recruiters, but she liked Roberts Wesleyan because it was close enough to home that her parents would be able to come to her games. Little did she know when she left for college that her parents would someday be traveling much farther than Fredonia to Rochester to see her compete.
The Beijing Olympics were eight years, 6671 miles, and a billion thoughts away, but Jenn’s parents would be there.
The Run Up
Jenn was a powerhouse on the basketball court at Roberts Wesleyan averaging 24.3 points and 6.7 rebounds a game for Roberts Wesleyan in 2003–04 and taking her team to the NCCAA national championship that year.
She also competed for the Redjackets in track and field earning school records in the 100 meter hurdles, 400 meter hurdles, javelin and high jump.
If you noticed pole vaulting is not on the list, it is not an omission – Jenn never competed in the pole vault for Roberts Wesleyan. In fact, she didn’t take her first jump until her senior year at the age of 22.
“It was scary,” Jenn admitted, of her first jump. “It wasn’t something I ever thought I would try.”
Jenn, who is six feet tall, was convinced to try by Rick Suhr (pronounced “Sure”) – a former pole vaulter and pole vault coach who had seen her play basketball at Roberts Wesleyan and was impressed with her drive.
“I noticed her toughness right away,” said Rick, who first saw Jenn play basketball against a group of guys in a pickup game where she held her own.
As a twenty-something Jenn was not the typical pole vault coach’s recruit.
“Most world class pole vaulters are groomed at a young age,” Rick said. “Age 22 or 23 is not the usual time to start pole vaulting.”
But Rick saw something in Jenn he knew was special. Working in his training facility in Riga, the two dedicated themselves to teaching and learning the sport.
What happened next was extraordinary.
The Take Off
Jenn had only been vaulting for ten months when the 2005 USA Indoor Championships in Boston rolled around.
“We debated whether or not to compete,” Rick said. “I knew she had a future in the sport, but I didn’t know if she was ready.”
Two weeks before the event they decided to give it a try. Jenn was the dead last qualifier in a field of 22 vaulters.
She arrived at the tournament unseeded and unknown. She left as the winner of the US Title.
“To this day it is just shocking she did what she did,” Rick said. “She shouldn’t have won that title. She wasn’t ready. But she did. Sometimes someone is just meant to do something and that’s Jenn.”
At the end of the championship another competitor approached Rick and told him not to get excited about Jenn’s national title because she would end up being just be a “one hit wonder.”
Oh how wrong she was!
Jenn has been the number one ranked American pole vaulter since 2006 and went on to win a total of 10 US National Championships.
She holds the American women’s pole vault record both indoors and outdoors and in 2008 she won the U.S. Olympic trials setting an American Record of 4.92 m (16 ft. 2 in) In the last two years she has jumped the three highest marks in the world.
Currently ranked #1 in the world, she won a silver medal in the Beijing Olympics in 2008. That same year Track & Field News named Jenn the American Female Athlete of the Year.
“Jenn went from being the dark horse of pole vaulting to being number one in the world,” said Bill Jackatow, a long-time friend of Rick and Jenn. “Jenn has embraced the toughness of the sport. She’s a gladiator.”
Jackatow, who coached wrestling at Spencerport High School for 31 years and coached Rick to a state wrestling title in 1987, has consulted with the Suhrs over the years on Jenn’s mental approach to pole vaulting – something all three agree has been a huge component to her success.
“Skill and athleticism is part of pole vaulting, but the mental approach is enduring,” Jackatow said. “In tough times Jenn knows how to hit the reset button and focus. She’s developed the ability to tune out all the outside things that can drag you down as an athlete in an individual sport.”
For as much as pole vaulting is an individual sport, Jenn and Rick have shown the world it can be a team sport too.
“They are a powerful combination,” said Tim St. Lawrence, an elite level pole vault coach from Warwick, New York who knows the Suhrs well. “They are ambassadors for our sport. Jenn and Rick are humble, gracious, and always willing to help others.”
When you spend time with Jenn and Rick, who married in Spencerport on January 3, 2010, you see the great mutual respect, friendship, and symbiosis between them. Pole vaulting is an integral part of their life, but it is not their life.
“If we stopped pole vaulting today our relationship wouldn’t end,” Rick said. “We love to be together.”
Their training facility is 500 feet away from their home in a 20 foot high airplane hanger Rick constructed. They train about five hours a day and have an understanding that what happens in the hanger does not come into the house.
“Our home is our sanctuary,” Rick said. “We’ve traveled the world everywhere and have gone so many places that it’s a vacation to be home.”
The two have had offers to live and train in other places with climates more conducive to year-round pole vault training, but they have never seriously considered them.
“I get homesick fast,” said Jenn, who is a spokeswoman for Adidas and OMEGA Watches (the official time keeper of 25 Olympic games). “I love Rochester. I love being home.”
During down time they enjoy hiking, four wheeling, home improvement projects, spending time at their cottage on Lake Ontario, going to Red Wings games and watching high school sporting events.
“It’s not uncommon to see us in the back row of a high school basketball game or wrestling meet,” Rick said. “We love to see high school level sports and the passion of the kids.”
When out and about in Rochester they enjoy working out at three different gyms they belong to or grabbing a coffee at Leaf & Bean Coffee Co. on Chili Ave.
“But mostly you’ll find us at Wegmans,” said Jenn, who has the autoimmune disease Celiac Disease and loves the store’s selection of Gluten Free products that she can eat. “Wegmans is our most frequently visited place in the world! We’re there at least four or five times a week.”
The Suhrs’ next big trip will be to London where Jenn will represent the United States.
“When you compete on a team that’s called the United States it’s unreal,” Jenn said. “It doesn’t matter what sport you’re in, you feel an amazing sense of community and pride.”
Like all of her events, Rick will be there with her.
When the two met, Rick had not been on an airplane for 11 years and had a debilitating fear of flying.
“She got me on a plane,” Rick said of Jenn. “Nobody else could get me on a plane.”
In essence, both have given each other flight.