“The Thrill of Victory…” It’s been an unofficial slogan of the Olympics since at least the 1970s when Vinko Bogataj, a Slovenian ski jumper became famous on ABC-TV’s Wide World of Sports for his single moment of spectacular failure—careening off the side of an alpine ski jump—forever after dubbed as “…the Agony of Defeat.”
Chautauqua County’s own champion, a Fredonia native, 30-year-old, 6’ 0”, pole vaulter Jenn Suhr (pronounced ‘sure’), has been experiencing the thrill of victory for a long time. Suhr vaulted to silver medal success at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The only American woman to clear the bar at 16 feet, both outdoors and in, she is favored by many to bring home the gold from London this summer. Sports officials rank Suhr among the best indoor vaulters of all-time, second only to Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva, the two-time reigning Olympic gold medal champion.
Jenn attended high school in Fredonia and Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester as Jenn Stuczynski, the daughter of Mark and Sue Stuczynski, grocery store owners in Fredonia, New York, before she married her coach, Rick Suhr, of Rochester, New York. Other athletes Suhr has coached have set 16 national records and won 15 national championships in pole vault competitions at the high school, college, Olympic amateur and professional levels.
Pole vaulting began in the lowlands of northern Europe as a practical farm skill to leap over fences or natural obstacles in marshy land or over drainage ditches. It was simply a way to stay dry and save a walk to the nearest bridge. Every farm kept a stack of poles handy. Gondoliers in Venice used “punting poles” to jump to shore from their boats. It has been a recognized sport, however, for more than 100 years.
“When you’re jumping,” Suhr recently told a reporter, “it’s just an aggressiveness, but I think the exhilaration and the fun comes after you make the bar and you’re falling. That’s the best part – a few seconds to celebrate and relax.” Suhr, named American Female Athlete of the Year for 2008 by Track & Field News, has enjoyed that experience many times. She broke records three times at the USA Outdoor championships from ‘06 through ‘08, the 3-time USA Indoor championships in ‘05, ‘07 and ‘08 and the ‘05 NAIA Indoor championship, all in addition to her ‘08 Olympic silver medal.
A lifetime in sports is often over by the time an athlete is 30 years old. More than two decades of intense training and competition can lead to an early burnout. Jenn Suhr, however, brings an important competitive edge to London in that respect. “It’s not like I’ve been vaulting my whole life. I haven’t. So my body hasn’t taken that physical beating. I’m still on the upscale,” she said with her well known winning smile.
“I just want to tell USA Track and Field, ‘Please don’t forget about some of us older athletes,'” she said. “I actually think I’m in my prime….All I can say is, keep older athletes in mind,” Suhr told Los Angeles Times reporter, Helene Elliott, on the way to London.
Suhr’s rise in the sport, however, is not without challenges. Last year she found herself struggling with more fatigue than she considered normal. Her doctor diagnosed celiac disease, intolerance for foods containing gluten, common in wheat and a few other grains. A few dietary changes returned her to her winning form and feeling.
This year’s Summer Olympics in London promise to be as spectacular as any, predicted to bump up the tally of dollars spent and eyes reached beyond anything before. London’s bill is said to be ready to top £11billion, nearly $17 billion, depending on the fluctuating exchange rate. NBC spent $3.5 billion for the rights to broadcast all of the Olympic Games between 2000 and 2012.
More than 3.5 billion fans tuned into the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona on their TVs, but since then nobody knows exactly how much that number has jumped because uncountable hundreds of millions more are now tuning in on myriad Internet sites around the world in as many as 150 languages in more than 200 countries.
The Empire State sent 35 athletes to London, this year, competing in nearly 30 event categories. According to the United States Olympic Committee, 529 athletes qualified for the Summer Olympic Games 2012.
The Modern Olympics, as they are known today, began in 1894 when the French nobleman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded “les Jeux olympiques,” the Olympic Games, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Historians, however, consider that to be only the most recent and most successful revival of the original games which began 2788 years ago, in 776 BC, with a simple footrace. The first Olympic champion, recorded only by tradition, was said to be Coroebus, a humble though athletic baker from the city of Elis beside the Ionian Sea of Greece. Olympic judges hail from a tradition as old as the games themselves.
The success of the games in Elis was considered a sacred duty of the judges of the Ancient Olympics. Their commission, as remains true for the judges of the Modern Olympics, was to maintain the standards, uphold the rules and assure the ongoing legacy of the games.
The Ancient Games featured many events that would look entirely familiar to modern sports fans. There were running events, a no-holds-barred, mixed martial arts event called the “pankration”, a pentathlon (with a long jump, javelin and discus throws, wrestling and a foot race), a boxing event, classical wrestling (with barely a passing resemblance to today’s TV wrestling), and equestrian events.
A newer sport, of European origin where it is called football, and popular world wide, is called soccer in the U.S. Abby Wambach from Rochester New York is a star soccer forward on the 2012 Olympic Women’s Soccer Team. Her advice to aspiring young Olympians is typical of many in her position. “The sport itself is difficult to learn,” she recently told a website visitor. “I mean, look at us. We’re still making mistakes and we’ve been at it for the past 20 years. My advice to any newcomer is just to be patient and to work as hard as you can, because if you work as hard as you can, you won’t be able to look back with regrets. That’s how the women on this national team got here.
Modern sports, some of which an ancient Greek athlete would not recognize, include events like the Men’s 10m Air Pistol competition. The 2008 Bronze Medal winner was Jason Turner from Rochester, New York. At the age of 15, he won the Junior U.S. National Championship, moved up to the Olympic National Development Team at the U.S. National Training Center, and then on to the ’08 games. “That was the best moment of my life,” he said. “There’s no better moment in the world.” Turner is now in London with his sights on the highest prize of all, planning to bring gold home in ‘12.
New York State and Chautauqua County have good reasons to look forward to a winning year at the 2012 Olympics in London, England.