Learning to fly

Lee soars in second vault season

FREE STATE HIGH SENIOR TODD LEE has proven a quick study in the pole vault, winning a Class 6A regional title and qualifying for the 6A state meet in Wichita in just his second season of competition.

In little more than a month, Todd Lee will depart for Colorado Springs, Colo., to begin basic training for his appointment to the United States Air Force Academy. Once there, the Free State High senior hopes to take the initial steps toward his dream career of piloting an F-22 stealth fighter jet.

Until then, he’ll have to settle for a secondary passion that likewise encompasses runways, takeoffs and hurtling through the air.

In just his second season with the Firebirds’ track and field program, Lee, the son of a retired Air Force pilot, has found his niche in the most appropriate of places – the pole-vault pit.

During last week’s Class 6A regional meet at the Olathe District Activity Center, Lee matched his personal best with a vault of 13 feet, 6 inches, good enough to win gold and earn a spot among a competitive 16-man field that will be vying for a 6A state title Friday night at Cessna Stadium in Wichita.

It’s elite company for a young man who only decided last spring to add a second aerial pursuit to an athletic career that saw him pull off similar high-risk maneuvers as a diver for the Free State boys swimming and diving program.

“I have a need for thrills, definitely,” said Lee, who also lettered as a defender for the Firebirds’ boys soccer team last fall. “In diving, you’re up in the air falling. Pole vault, same thing, you’re falling.

“I guess the soccer came just from being in Europe.”

Prior to moving to Lawrence in 2002 – when his dad, Michael D. Lee, was assigned as the Kansas University ROTC commander – Todd Lee spent his formative adolescent years in Germany, living in numerous locales as the son of a military man.

Moving back to the states meant numerous cultural adjustments, but the transition was made easier once Lee discovered the adrenaline rush of competitive diving as a ninth-grader.

Two years later, the track bug bit. During his rookie junior season, Lee dabbled in numerous disciplines, yet found the pole vault to be a comfy fit for two familiar reasons.

First, it calls for much the same skill set as diving, most notably the ability to control his body while twisting through the air.

“They really kind of build off each other,” Lee said.

Second, it calls for much the same mental makeup as diving, most notably the willingness to recognize fear is not an option.

“Starting out, he didn’t know what he was supposed to be scared of. So he just goes and does it,” said John Olson, Free State’s pole vault and triple jump coach, about Lee’s introduction to the discipline. “And he’s one of those people who won’t quit until he gets it right.”

It proved to be a bit of a tough learning curve during his rookie year. Lee cleared 10-6 early in his junior campaign, then never eclipsed that mark, preventing him from advancing during last spring’s postseason.

This season has been a much different story. He immediately nailed a personal best by clearing 11 feet during the first month of competition and hasn’t looked back, steadily upping that mark to his current 13-6 threshold.

It doesn’t mean there haven’t been bumps and bruises along the way.

“There are times I have missed the mat. I’ve hit the ground,” Lee said. “Two weeks ago I had a nasty hit on the box. You just get back up and go again. There’s nothing else you can do.

“You’ve got to have guts.”

Mental toughness will only be part of the equation this weekend. While Lee enters the state meet as the No. 4 seed, the general consensus is last week’s regional performances were largely considered a down week for many of the state’s top vaulters. Several of the state qualifiers have already topped 14 feet this spring, although just three did so last Friday.

Lee himself had few problems with that height during Tuesday’s practice, and feels there is even more available with just two days of preparation remaining for the biggest meet of his high school career.

“I really think I can add another foot, foot and a half to my PR,” Lee said. “I really want to work on turning, getting that half-turn (while clearing the bar). If you can see the bar, it’s a lot easier to adjust your body.”

Should Lee accomplish that goal, a state medal – the top seven finishers take home hardware – would be a mere formality. In fact, Olson believes anything above 14-0 stands a solid chance of allowing his pupil to leave Wichita holding onto something more than just memories.

He also believes that, whatever the final height Lee manages to master, those gathered around the pole-vault pit Friday night are in for a good time.

“He’s an exciting vaulter to watch, because sometimes, you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen,” Olson said. “But it’s always been fun.”