Senior pole vaulter Aaron Unterberger put pain aside to fly high in the NCAAs
March 10, 2013
By Jon Cooper
Aaron Unterberger shouldn't have been at the Randal Tyson Track Complex in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Friday night at the NCAA Indoor Championships.
He should not have been competing in the pole vault, alongside teammates Julienne McKee, who finished eighth in the triple-jump and was named First Team All-America, and sprinter Broderick Snoddy, who finished 13th in the 60-meter preliminaries at 6.75.
Unterberger simply refused to listen to his own body, especially the torn labrum in his shoulder, which was screaming for him to stay home and rest, or at least do anything but vault.
Instead, as he'd done all season, the Snellville, Ga., native defied his body, and vaulted. He'd earn a 12th-place finish, going 5.44 meters (17'8.5"), just short of his school record, set a week earlier.
Pole vault is an event where timing is everything. There are so many moving parts, that any kind of hitch or hesitation potentially can lead to a malfunction. That's not good when you're potentially more than 15 feet in the air.
Unterberger knew the risks but also knew he loved to vault more.
With his season running out of time, his choice was easy.
The shoulder, which will require surgery and up to four months of recovery, wasn't going to stop him from a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete in the NCAAs.
Unterberger and Coach Viktor Kirillov would find a way to vault through the pain. They'd worked too hard to not at least try.
"I tore it last outdoor season around midseason," he said. "My shoulder's still stable in the joint but it hurts to plant and to swing up, which are the two most important parts of the vault. We just tried different things to figure out how we could keep the inflammation and the pain under control."
Nothing worked; not cortisone, physical therapy, heat and stretching. The effect on his form was obvious, as he'd hesitate and throw off that crucial timing.
Coach Kirillov, whose son, Nikita, is on the team and reached the World Junior Championships last summer, never panicked. He knew Unterberger's technique better than anyone, having coached him at Brookwood High School, and tinkered with his technique.
“I've worked with him for a long time," Kirillov said. "We did a little bit different preparation than last year. He did not compete in as many competitions because I wanted to save his shoulder. We did special preparation — preparation exactly for last three competitions – the ACCs, Last Chance and NCAAs."
"We did a new system with his run up," he added. "I changed it completely. He's starting to feel comfortable with it. We do a shorter run and jump. I also fixed his technique."
Unterberger was completely on-board with the suggestions.
"I gripped [the pole] a little bit closer, I closed my grip up," he said. "My left arm was closer to my right arm so there's not as much stress on my right arm, which is where the injury was. Then, just tried to medicate it, figure out a way to keep the inflammation under control because you really don't have a lot of time to react once you plant the pole and when I would hesitate it would basically ruin the rest of my vault. So just figure out some way to keep the inflammation low enough to where the plant wouldn't be that painful. So really the adjustment was medication and moving my grip in a little bit."
The changes worked. Unterberger hit a personal-best, and a school-record, going 5.31 meters (17'5") at the ACC Championships, then, at the Last Chance Invite the following weekend, surpassed that, going 5.44 (17'10.25").
His second-place finish allowed him to qualify for the NCAAs. But it was suspenseful.
"I didn't know I was going to qualify until I looked up and saw that the bar was still up at 5-44," he said, with a laugh. "The first attempt I knocked it off. The standards were too far back. So we scooted the standards in and jumped again. I felt under my arm brush the bar. As I was falling, I kind of looked up and saw that the bar was wobbling a little bit. I just kind of sat there and looked at it. It didn't fall off. That's when I finally realized that I'd qualified. It wasn't until the last minute. It didn't look optimistic."
Dampening Unterberger's optimism is a difficult task, especially when it comes to pole vault. He got inspired to vault after listening to his older brother, Cameron, talk about his experiences.
"My brother was a senior when I was a freshman. He started pole-vaulting in ninth grade," he recalled. "Once he started bending the pole, he would talk about it at the dinner table. He's a pilot now. He always wanted to fly, and he would tell us how much it felt like flying. So it just kind of intrigued me. I kept at it and it got more and more fun as you went higher and higher."
He credits the Kirillovs for getting him to the next level.
"Coach Kirillov has shown more dedication to me and all the other athletes than I've ever seen any coach dedicate," he said. "He'll call us up if we have a bad meet, right before we go to sleep and he'll say he's sad that we didn't do well and tell us what we need to do the next time. You can tell that he really cares.
"I was jumping 15'7" before [Kirillov] came here. Since he's come here, I'm now jumping 17'10"," he added. "Really the only reason why I've been successful in college is because of coach."
Nikita has been as influential.
"He's had so much experience," Unterberger said. "He's kind of like the Guinea pig. Every time he comes back from the summer competition, the World Championships, the Junior Nationals, Olympic trials, he experiences it first and he'll tell us about it. He'll come and tell us the stories about what to expect from those high-level meets, some of the more difficult parts of the meet, what to expect, how to mentally prepare.
"He's also extremely supportive," he added. "He'll send me a text before a meet, wish me good luck, just give me some pointers on what I need to work on for that meet. It's extremely constructive and extremely helpful."
Unterberger will compete in the outdoor season then get his degree in industrial engineering and start a job as a technical marketer with Siemens Industry. The job and the impending surgery leave his career up in the air but he knows he wants to continue to fly.
"I love to vault. It's one of the most interesting and most fulfilling sports that I've ever played so I want to keep at it when I graduate," he said. "I'll be moving around for two years, so it's possible I'll move out of the state. That out-of-state location may be when I get the shoulder surgery, but otherwise I'll keep practicing with Coach and see where it goes."