This Pole Vaulter Has Found Understanding With High Heights

* Maddox Hamm cleared 18-1 at adidas Track Nationals in 2022

Photo Credit: Mary Ann Magnant/MileSplit

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Lilah Drafts Johnson - MileSplit Correspondent

Scottsboro (AL) High School senior Maddox Hamm launched himself to elite company last year as one of the best high school vaulters of all-time, clearing 18 feet, 0.5 inches at adidas Track Nationals.

With Hamm's performance tied No. 2 all-time for indoor competition, his name is now in conversation with the likes of Mondo Duplantis, the world record-holder who went 19-1.5 in high school.

However, while Mondo's entire career was spent in a pit, learning from a vaulter dad and a heptathlete mother, Hamm has a different origin story.

Mondo grew up with a pit in his backyard; Hamm grew up next door to a cousin with a trampoline.

"I started trying to teach myself flips and things, and I think it scared my mom," he told MileSplit recently. "She wanted she wanted me to learn it the right way."

That's how Hamm found himself enrolled in a gymnastics lesson at the age of nine.

    "All my coaches make fun of me because I don't celebrate after a big jump. I stand up on the mat and just kind of look at the coaches and smile. I don't know how to act."

    He retired from the sport a few years later, but quickly found a new way to make use of the skills he honed there. In middle school, Hamm became interested in the pole vault, an event in which he had seen his sister Lauren Hamm, a senior vaulter at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, excel.

    "It came to me really fast. I just kind of always understood how it worked," he said. "One of the big things for when people are trying to learn is the air awareness of it, knowing where you are and how to move your body in the air.

    "I already had that, so it definitely sped up the first few years of learning it."

    Hamm's high school coach, Luke Robinson, immediately knew they were going to need to find some bigger poles.

    "He showed up at that track practice the first time and was already doing things in pole vault that high school coaches typically don't have to think about until you get athletes that are in their junior or senior year," Robinson said. 

    The coach and athlete duo learned together as Hamm continued to reach new heights, with Hamm supplementing his training with visits to Birmingham to participate in the Peak Athletics track club run by Chris Spear, a three-time Alabama state champion.

    Hamm began to garner national attention with his standout season last year.

    After winning the indoor adidas Track National title, he went on to record clearances of 18-1, 17-10, 17-10 and 17-9 over the outdoor season, with only five other high school athletes jumping within a foot of him.

    Even after winning the Gatorade Alabama Track and Field Player of the Year last spring, Hamm is still adjusting to the spotlight.

    "All my coaches make fun of me because I don't celebrate after a big jump. I stand up on the mat and just kind of look at the coaches and smile," Hamm said. "I don't know how to act."

    Robinson attributes part of Hamm's success to his humble nature.

    For Hamm, a new height is just another bar.

    "He's not ever nervous about getting on a bigger pole or anything. He's the only athlete I've ever coached that's mentally like that, the stage is never too big," Robinson said. "Pole vault kind of is different than other events. All the athletes are competing against each other, but they all know each other and they're all talking, they cheer each other on. Maddox is usually the life of that party. He's always got a big smile on his face."

    Before Hamm's arrival, the next best vaulter in Alabama history went 16-6.5. But it goes beyond that, too. Hamm was the first high school athlete to clear 18 feet nationally since 2018.

    This season, Hamm could further solidify his legacy by surpassing the mark of the second-best high school vaulter besides Mondo, KC Lightfoot, who went 18-5 in 2018.

    However, when asked about goals for the coming season, both athlete and coach emphasized they were focused on overall development, not a particular height or title. It's understandable -- both Hamm and Robinson are wary of the weight that talk of projections and potential of a young star can bring.

    For Hamm to break new heights, he'll likely need to make changes to his runway approach and equipment. These adjustments can take time to get used to in an event that requires such a careful balance of precise technique and raw power.

    "We've all known around here for a long time that this is not just another kid," Robinson said. "But he's getting a little bit more attention than normal and we've been talking about that. Like, let's make sure we keep it fun. Let's keep it low key, let's focus on the simple things."

    This aligns with Hamm's competition style.

    "Usually, my best vaults are when I'm at the back of the runway and there's nothing in my head. Whatever gets me to calm down and have a good time is better than anything else," Hamm said.

    Hamm committed to compete for Virginia Tech under renowned vault coach Bob Phillips next season.

    His 2022-2023 indoor campaign is underway with a best mark of 17-2, and the Alabama indoor state championships are up next weekend in Birmingham.

    He recently had the chance to compete at the 2023 National Pole Vault Summit in Reno, Nevada, where a disappointing no height did not stop him from soaking in the opportunity to learn from the professional vaulters there.

    "It's a one-sided relationship, because I don't actually know them and they don't know me, but I obviously look up to them," he said. "But the other side of that coin is that I just really want to compete with them. It really set a little fire off."

    The pros might not know his name yet, but Hamm is certainly one to watch.

    "We're focusing on the little things right now, but once he gets off the ground, if he can take off in the right spot, he's gonna kill it," Robinson said.

    At this stage in Hamm's career, the sky is the limit.

    And when the time is right, Hamm will be ready to take off.