Rare Air

By Beacon Staff

Afraid of heights? Not Lonnie Sherman.

?“I’ve kind of been flying my whole life,” he says.

The senior at Glacier High School spends his summers rock climbing up steep pitches of open mountainsides. In the winter, he launches big air off terrain features at Whitefish Mountain Resort. And in the spring, he engages in his greatest gravity-defying activity.

Pole vaulting is a peculiar yet inspiring event. To be successful requires an exacting routine and brave demeanor. It combines the techniques of other major jumping events but also requires the mindset and prowess of gymnastics.

When Sherman first picked up the pole as a freshman, he could barely get off the ground.

“It was really hard for me at first,” he says. “I no-heighted almost every meet for quite awhile.”

His parents, who have gymnastic backgrounds, offered a few pointers to help Sherman with his twisting agility once he was in the air. Combined with the skills he learned skiing and scaling rock walls, he began developing what he calls, “air awareness.”

Toward the end of his first season he cleared 10-feet, six inches. Over the next few years, he ascended further into the sky. The thrill of flight had hooked him.

“It’s just super fun running down that runway and when you hit that box it all just comes together and feels way cool, just being in the air,” he says.

This spring, Sherman is flying higher than ever — two feet higher than his best jump last year — and in the final weeks of the season, he’s approaching rare heights. At the Missoula County Public Schools Invitational track meet, he vaulted 14-6. A few weeks later, he hit that mark again in Butte, solidifying his place as the state’s best pole vaulter in all classes.

His 14-6 remains the top height in Montana by five inches. Taylor Schwartz of Glendive has the second best vault at 14-1.

“Once he’s up in the air and on the pole, he’s probably as good as anybody in the state, if not better,” Glacier jump coach Paul Holmgren says. “He’s very comfortable being upside down in the air.”

The 14-foot mark is a prominent one in pole vaulting, similar to the 10-minute mark in the 3,200 or two minutes in the 800. A year ago, Dominick Speranza, then a senior at Helena Capital, won the Class AA state championship with a jump of 14 feet in Bozeman. The next best jump hit 13-6. Preston Schubert, then a senior at Thompson Falls, won the Class B title with a leap of 14-7.5, the best mark all season in all classes.

Only eight athletes cleared 14 feet or higher all last season, including Flathead’s Dylan Creek. Whitefish had two athletes approach it; both Sean Foley and EJ Havens reached 13-6 and Foley earned second place at the Class A state meet.

Six athletes have surpassed 14-feet this spring. Sherman is only the second Glacier jumper to ever reach that height and his 14-6 is the school record by a half foot. Josiah Baumgartner held the previous top mark with his best jump of 14-feet even.

“You don’t get a 14-foot vaulter very often. You get one every four or five years,” Holmgren says. “You should enjoy them when they come around because they’re not very common.”

The all-class state record in pole vaulting is one of the oldest and most impressive in Montana track and field. Twenty-six years ago, on a hot day in Helena at the Class AA state meet, Todd Foster of Helena Capital competed in an intense finals competition against five other athletes who had cleared 14-9. When the bar was raised to 15-0, it was down to three. Foster cleared 15-3, then 15-6 before landing 15-9, which earned him the state championship and the all-class record. Foster went on to compete at Idaho State, where he set school records of 17-5 indoors and 17-2 outdoors.

His 1988 mark remains a coveted and esteemed record that few have challenged. Cort Rogers of Whitefish reached 15-6 as a senior in 2007 at the Archie Roe Invitational at Legends Stadium. Rafe Espinoza of Arlee cleared 15-6 as a senior in 2001 and set the Class C record when he hit 15-1 at the state meet. Trevor Gunlock of Polson made 15-3 in 2000. Brian Schenaver of Thompson Falls reached 15-feet in 2008.

Sherman has his sights set on reaching 15-feet, which he has achieved in practice and nearly cleared at last week’s crosstown dual at Legends Stadium. In order to do that, the senior is tweaking his footwork. Most vaulters take between 14 and 18 strides before sticking the pole and launching into the air; Sherman takes only 12. He’s been working overtime to improve his speed while carrying a longer 15-foot pole.

“He’s got good springs in his legs. More speed will help him a lot,” Holmgren says. “He’s definitely going to get more height. I think he can go another foot this year.”

Sherman will have a shot at the Western AA divisional record — 15-2, set by Bobby Biskupiak of Helena Capital in 2006 — in his hometown, as Kalispell is hosting the Western AA divisional track meet at Legends Stadium, May 23-24.

Even if he doesn’t set any new marks, for Sherman it’s all about the ride and he’s enjoying every moment of it. He hopes it will continue into college next year, but even if his pole vaulting stops in spring, there’s no doubt he’ll be a frequent flyer some other way, whether up a mountainside or at the ski resort.

“It’s something I love to do,” he says.

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