Connect with us

Track and Field

RARE AIR: Redbank Valley Senior Claire Henry Gunning for Fourth Straight D9 Title in Pole Vault With Traumatic Event From Last Year Behind Her

NEW BETHLEHEM, Pa. (EYT/D9) — It was the sound that got to Claire Henry.

The loud crack of the pole snapping, followed by the sudden plummet to the mat.

It was the echo of that pop that haunted Henry for part of her junior season in the pole vault for the Redbank Valley track and field team.

“I started a little slower than I would have because of that pole breaking, then I started to get better,” Henry said at the District 9 championships last year. “It was more the sound than the falling through the air for me. I tried to tell myself it didn’t mess me up, but, yeah, it did. I felt it every time I put the pole down. I’d be terrified. But I tried to forget it.”

The trauma was made worse because the pole was new and the thought of it breaking had never crossed her mind.

Until that meet early in the spring.

“I didn’t get hurt, so that helped,” Henry said. “I had to finish that meet and I told myself I wasn’t scared, but it was in the back of my mind all the time. Even though it didn’t hurt me, it was still kind of hard to come back from. I just had to keep doing it. Repetition. I just practiced and pretended I wasn’t thinking about it and eventually I just stopped thinking about it.”

Now all that is on Henry’s mind is completing a rare feat.

Winning four straight D9 championships in an event.

Henry moved past the fear of that early season incident and won her third straight District 9 Class 2A crown in the pole vault last year.

Now a senior, she’s gunning for the sweep — but has plenty of rivals.

“My overall goal is to just do better than last year,” Henry said. “I did 10 feet last year, and the goal is 11. That would be awesome. Another goal is to go to districts and see how that goes. There’s definitely more competition this year. The goal is to always keep improving.”

Henry has people pushing her in her own school colors.

Redbank Valley senior McKenna Rankin and sophomore Ella Rizzo are rising threats in the pole vault.

Henry cleared 10-1 at the D9 finals last May to win and Rizzo was second at nine feet. Rankin tied for seventh, clearing eight feet.

Rizzo won the pole vault in the first meet of the season at Armstrong with a career-best 9-6.

“Ella is doing really well,” Henry said. “It helps a lot to have that kind of competition. It pushes you and it’s also fun because we’re all friends and we make it fun. We cheer for each other, so it’s been nice.”

Both Henry and Rizzo advanced to the PIAA championships last year.

After placing ninth as a sophomore, Henry had a disappointing state meet as a junior, finishing 16th.

“Last year, I didn’t do that well on that stage,” Henry said. “I want to be able to go back and show myself that I can do it. The competition last year was really good. I had a bad day, so I just want to have confidence, get in and shake off last year, I guess.”

To do that, Henry is refining her approach.

She’s off to a slow start, in part because of the weather and in part because of an injury that has dogged her early on.

“I haven’t been jumping much yet because the weather has been so bad,” Henry said. “We’ve just been doing running and conditioning. Right now I’m working on a problem I had last year. I don’t put my arms up so I’m kind of just using my core strength to pull my body over instead of making it one continuous jump with my arms involved. I’ve been trying to involve my arms. It was a bad habit I’ve had forever.”

Henry has been able to get several eyes on her technique, even in the offseason, thanks to the High Standards Vault Club in Franklin.

That organization helps pole vaulters of all skill levels at no charge.

For Henry, it’s an opportunity to get in those valuable reps and fine tune everything about her mechanics.

“Everyone is welcome, and it’s free,” Henry said. “You can go jump, which is nice, because it’s not like basketball when you can just go to a court and shoot around.

“Once you get something in your mind, it’s hard to get it out,” she added. “It’s hard to tell everything you’re doing in the five seconds you are in the air. It’s nice for someone to be able to tell you, ‘Oh, you’re doing this wrong,’ and then you can focus on breaking that bad habit through repetition because it does take a lot of repetition to break a bad habit.”

It’s taken years for Henry to get where she is now.

She started pole vaulting in the eighth grade and her career did not get off to a promising beginning.

“It’s kind of an embarrassing sport at the start,” Henry said, chuckling. “It feels pointless. That’s definitely how it felt at first. But then you watch everybody who goes really high and that kind of motivates you to keep going because it looks cool.”

It feels pretty darn good, too, Henry said.

She can remember vividly the first time she truly soared, clearing 8-6, and realizing this event was the one for her.

“It was in the eighth grade. It was the coolest thing in the world,” Henry said. “Everyone says it’s like you flying. It was kind of like, ‘Oh, wow, I was just in the air.’ It’s hard core, but it’s fun, no matter what. Winning or not, you have fun with it.”

Henry was hooked.

Ever since, she’s been striving to fly even higher.

She will get even more chances after high school.

Henry figured her pole vaulting days would end after high school, but a serious of serendipitous events led her to Saint Francis University.

Henry had always been interested in nursing and figured she wouldn’t have time to pursue a sport while also undertaking such a demanding major.

But one day she was lying in a dental chair when a hygienist changed the course of her life.

“She said, ‘I can see you as an occupational therapist,’” Henry said. “I was looking at nursing at that point, but I wasn’t completely set on that. I looked it up, and it was really interesting. I started job shadowing, and ever since, that’s been what I’ve wanted to do.”

Henry began looking for schools and came across Saint Francis.

On the visit, her life changed again radically.

“I wasn’t even really looking at doing track in college, but on my visit to Saint Francis, the coaches were there,” Henry said. “One coach actually knew of me because he has some ties to District 9 and he goes to watch districts. They met with me, showed me around the track and field facilities and really got me thinking about it.”

That coach is DJ Horton, who spent one season as the head track and field coach at Kane. Horton knows his way around a pole vault pit, setting Indiana (Pa.) University’s record in the event at 17-¾. He was a six-time PSAC champion and six-time All-American.  

Henry jumped at the chance to work with Horton and committed to Saint Francis three weeks ago.

“I’ve just had a lot of luck,” Henry said.

She hopes that luck continues this season. With her future in focus, Henry can better focus on the present.

“I feel like I’ve definitely gotten out of my high school career what I’ve wanted,” Henry said. “I can finish it off and have fun with it and hopefully do better than last year.”