KERRVILLE — Marble Falls High School senior pole vaulter T.J. Stephenson never won a championship event until April 4.
On that day, he claimed the most important gold medal of the season, thus far, in the District 26-5A pole vaulting after clearing 14 feet 6 inches. Stephenson also set a new personal best, eclipsing his previous best by 4 inches.
“It feels pretty good,” he said. “It feels good to be successful.”
Stephenson, who was the only boys varsity athlete to win a district title during the meet, was the favorite to win the gold medal headed into the competition. A three-year varsity letterman, the Mustang has steadily improved every season. As a sophomore, he cleared 12-6. Last year, his best vault was 13-9.
In winning the 2018 district title, Stephenson defeated Lockhart’s Skylar Griffin and Kerrville Tivy’s Andrew Stieler by a full foot.
In pole vaulting, athletes sprint down the runway, plant a pole, and use their strength and momentum to vault over a bar. Stephenson pointed out it’s a complex process, and a myriad of things can go wrong.
“The thing about pole vaulting is you have to get a lot of little things right to be successful,” he said. “If you miss a few things, things won’t go your way.”
A good vault starts with getting the number of steps down the runway correct before placing the pole in the slot at the base of the vault to propel your body up and over the bar. If you’re off on the steps, it throws everything else off, Stephenson said.
Even with the correct number of steps, it’s still a work in progress as a vaulter sets the pole.
“You plant in the right spot. You have to get your hands up,” he continued. “That leads to the swing and fly-away phase, when you clear the cross bar.”
Having upper-body strength and accelerating down the runway are two important elements. Stephenson does chin-ups and pull-ups, runs bleachers, and sprints to perform at his maximum.
Along with the physical aspect of launching yourself up and over a bar more than 14 feet above the ground, pole vaulters must contend with the mental part of the sport.
“You definitely can’t be scared or psyche yourself out,” Stephenson said. “You have to be aggressive and confident.”
Helping him at the district meet was a former pole vaulter who knows all about winning championships: Ashley Laughlin.
A 2004 graduate of Marble Falls High School, Laughlin won a state title in the event her senior year and went on to pole vault for the University of Texas at Austin.
Laughlin is the Dripping Springs High School girls head track-and-field coach. That didn’t keep her from offering Stephenson some help during the district meet.
Laughlin said it’s not unusual for pole vaulters and their coaches to help each other on the high school and collegiate levels because of the technicality of the event.
“It is truly like a family,” she said. “That is the one thing that makes (pole vaulting) unique.”
Plus, Laughlin pointed out, as pole vaulting is a highly technical sport, not every high school has a coach who specializes in the event.
Laughlin was glad to help Stephenson.
“He’s from my hometown,” she added with a smile. “That kid should continue on and go to regionals. He’s done a great job.”
Stephenson began pole vaulting in the seventh grade, following in the footsteps of his father, Troy. T.J.’s younger sister, Jesse, also pole vaults.
“I thought it would be fun,” the Mustang said. “I thought if I went out for it, I’d be good at it. I stuck with it.”
Marble Falls boys head track-and-field coach Chad Bishop said Stephenson “is a a role model student-athlete in every way.”
“The internal drive and commitment to excellence in T.J. is a quality that we as coaches can point other athletes to and say, ‘Emulate him. Dedicate yourself to excellence in that way,’” Bishop said. “T.J. is a great, all-around young man. He sets the standard in being humble, respectful, and coachable. He possesses those qualities that will allow him the ability to achieve any goal he sets.”
Stephenson said he is working to clear higher heights with the aim of landing a college scholarship to compete in the event. The son of Teri and Troy Stephenson plans to major in kinesiology to become a strength-and-conditioning coach.
Stephenson will compete at the District 25 and 26-5A area meet April 19 at Toney Burger Activity Center and Stadium, 602 E. Fourth St. in Austin.