US pole vaulter KC Lightfoot (© Instagram)
KC Lightfoot has emerged from a varied sporting background to become one of the best pole vaulters in the USA. He competed at last year’s World Championships in Doha and started 2020 in superb form, setting PBs of 5.83m indoors and 5.82m outdoors.
Here the 21-year-old explains how three different pursuits played a key part in his athletic development.
Growing up in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, Lightfoot was introduced to the sport of dirt biking through his father, who himself was a former 4.95m vaulter.
“I got my first four-wheeler when I was three years old,” recalls Lightfoot. “I loved riding; I rode them in the back yard every day and did so for no other reason than it was fun.”
At about the age of six or seven, Lightfoot graduated to riding dirt bikes before moving into the competitive side of the sport.
Competing most weekends, the Baylor University student admits he was no superstar racer but he enjoyed the experience and believes several aspects of the racing have aided his vaulting.
“I really enjoyed that sense of exhilaration from racing, and the fact you need to be a little bit crazy,” he explains. “I guess that is similar to vaulting, particularly that no sense of fear. When you are out there vaulting, you’re out there on your own hoping everything works out. It was a similar situation on the dirt bikes. It was possible a lot could go wrong, but it was also a lot of fun.”
Each race involved multiple jumps and Lightfoot says this helped develop his spatial awareness skills, a critical component of vaulting.
“The bike can be pretty heavy and if you are going to come up short on a jump, you have to quickly be able to recognise that, move your body and quickly manoeuvre the bike around to lessen the pain on landing,” he adds. “Spatial awareness is also hugely important in the pole vault because we have to figure out all the moving parts to the jump and adjust accordingly in order to get our body over the bar.”
At the age of 13, Lightfoot quit the sport of dirt biking to focus on baseball.
For much of his schoolyears, Lightfoot was a passionate and enthusiastic baseball player. He performed to a good standard on a travelling summer team, boasting a batting average of .400 and his versatility saw him play a number of positions including short shop, outfield and catcher.
It may not seem as though there are many transferable skills from baseball to pole vault, but Lightfoot says his reflexes were unquestionably sharpened on the baseball diamond and this has helped his vaulting.
“When batting, you need to make some quick decisions as you are swinging the bat,” he explains. “As the ball comes towards you, you have to act quickly. In a similar way when vaulting, you have to make quick decisions on the pole to make sure the jump works out.”
Lightfoot, who now describes pole vault as his “kryptonite” for baseball, quit the sport at the age of 15 or 16 to focus on his rising athletics career. But even today he still enjoys baseball.
“I like to play catch with my siblings or go to the batting cages and swing the bat,” he adds. “I would really like to play a game of baseball, and if someone invited me I would play.”
Cliff and bridge jumping
Another recreational pursuit the US vaulter enjoys is cliff and bridge jumping with friends.
He carries out the daring act at least a couple of times a year and has done so previously in the Ozarks, Arkansas and Utah.
“I love to go out with friends and jump in the water and do some back flips, nothing too insane!” he says. “The highest height I’ve jumped off in a cliff in Arkansas at around 85ft.”
Rather than learning specific skills for pole vaulting through cliff jumping, he reasons the recreational pursuit is “more a reflection of my fearlessness and of wanting to embrace an adrenaline rush.”
Steve Landells for World Athletics