Athlete Spotlight: Jack Whitt

Oklahoma’s Jack Whitt hasn’t experienced too many setbacks in his brief career as a high school pole-vaulter.

But there was one that occurred last summer for the senior from Norman North High School. Ranked No. 3 at the Nike Outdoor Nationals, held on June 19, Whitt fell far short of his then-personal best of 16 feet, 9 inches with a leap of 15-2, a performance that tied him for eighth overall.

“It was a long, 18-hour drive with my dad to begin with,” recalled Whitt, about the meet, which took place at North Carolina A&T University. “When the meet started, we had a tailwind and then it switched to a (headwind) and sometimes crosswind. I was not used to jumping in those conditions, and just didn’t have a good meet.”

Since that performance at the Nike meet, things have been looking nothing but up for one of the Sooner State’s finest prep athletes. Whitt achieved a rare high school milestone on Jan. 3 by clearing the magical 17-foot barrier at the Reno (Nev.) Pole Vault Summit . Just a few weeks ago on Feb. 14, he captured the Gudgen Invitational at Pittsburg (Kan.) State University, improving on his nation- and career-best with a height of 17-2.

“That was a giant step for me and any high school jumper to accomplish,” said Whitt, about his first time clearing 17 feet. “It took a little longer, but when it came it was a great feeling. Now it’s on to 18 feet before college.”

Whitt’s progression to elite status has certainly been a steady one. He was first drawn to track and field’s most complicated and daring event in his early teenage years. “My dad talked me into vaulting in the seventh grade. I was tall for my age and he thought a non-team sport would be better for me,” said the 6-foot-4 Whitt. “I did play football, basketball and baseball until the tenth grade. I was actually a pretty good pitcher.”

Whitt’s initial taste of competition occurred as a seventh-grader when he won a local meet in Norman (Okla.) by clearing six feet.

“After my first jump, I was hooked for life,” he said. “It just felt right even though I had a long way to go to become an elite vaulter.”

Turns out that small local meet was just the opening act. Winning and the pole vault have been synonymous with Whitt ever since. He is the two-time defending state champion in his specialty, copping the event his sophomore and junior years at the Oklahoma 5A-6A State Track and Field Championship.

Whitt, who will attend Oral Roberts University in Tulsa on an athletic scholarship next fall where he’ll be under the tutelage of coach Joe Dial - a former world and American record-holder in the pole vault - saw his biggest jump to the next level occur as a sophomore when he improved on his previous best by 3 ½ feet with his winning effort of 15-0 at the state meet.

“My dad told me if I would get more serious about vaulting he would get me the best equipment and a personal coach,” Whitt said. “Since then, coach Tim McMichael has helped me big time get to where I am today. I also have worked with Joe Dial at his camps, also in the past. The key to success is having great coaching. I have several.”

The 18-year-old Whitt has also been getting some guidance from another familiar name in the pole vault fraternity. In the summer of 2007, he attended a camp run by Earl Bell, the 1984 Olympic bronze medalist who once held the WR and AR in the pole vault.

“He had told my dad that I was a special talent and I would have a great future in the event,” said Whitt, who was given the nickname “Big Boy” by Bell. “Since then, I have been at his camp several times to work with him and other vaulters he coaches. Earl taught me a great deal on the top of my pole. My first (unofficial) 17-foot jump was at his camp in December.”

Whitt had a season-best of 16-9 his junior year and cleared 16 feet or higher eight times in competition during 2008. In June, he captured the USATF National Junior Olympic Championships in Omaha, Neb., winning a jump-off with a height of 16-8 ¾. “I was really happy with the meet because I felt like I was coming into my own at the time,” Whitt said. “Regardless, I was happy with the meet.”

Some increased training has helped propel Whitt to his perch atop the pole vault rankings. He has spent increased time inside the weight room and has incorporated more running drills this past fall and early winter.

“I found out last year in the heat of the summer I have to be in better shape and have been able to get on bigger poles because of the weights,” said the talented vaulter, who strictly uses a sprint pole.

Whitt, who has cleared 17 feet three times this indoor season - his most recent coming at the Texas Tech High School Meet on Feb. 21 where he won with a jump of 17-0 - has decided to forego the upcoming Nike Indoor Nationals and the National Scholastic Indoor Championships, both of which are held the weekend of March 13-15. Instead, he’s focusing on the outdoor season and his quest for 18 feet.

“My dad and I decided to wait and go to the Great Southwest, Nike Outdoor and Junior Nationals in June,” he said. “Then hopefully I’ll advance to the Pan Am Games. I know I can jump a lot higher in outdoors.”