The latest Zip vault prodigy on the scene is Matt Ludwig. His dramatic third attempt clearance - when he was the only remaining jumper - at 5.60m/18'4Â˝" capped an electrifying competition at the NCAA outdoor championships, sealed the NCAA title for Ludwig, and added to the growing vault heritage at the University of Akron. "It was the culmination of all the hard work, the technical work, and all the hours that Coach Mitchell and I put in this year," notes the Ohio native on his exciting victory.
As is quite often the case, the battle for this year's NCAA Div. I pole vault crown was hard fought. 9 of the 24 finalists were still in the hunt when the bar went up to 5.55m/18'2Â˝" - a height that would thin the field. While Ludwig and his cross-state rival Adrian Valles of Cincinnati made first-attempt clearances at the new height, the 7 remaining competitors went 3 and out. At 5.60m/18'4Â˝", both remaining athletes missed on their first two attempts - although the Zip vaulter's 2nd attempt miss was very close. "When it first happened, I very disappointed, upset," admits Ludwig. "We had made one small change which we hadn't done the entire competition: I moved my standards back 5 centimeters. It's tiny, but it ended up being just a bit of a difference on that particular attempt. But [on the 2nd attempt] I just remember coming down, seeing it so close, and thinking in my head, 'Dang, that might have been a championship that I just lost because of something so tiny.'"
It doesn't often happen in track & field, but when his Bearcat rival missed on his 3rd and final attempt at 5.60m, Ludwig - jumping after his lone remaining competitor - was presented with another chance, one final attempt to snatch the crown. Exhibiting care, Ludwig and his coach made one last technical move before the 3rd attempt. "We pushed them [the standards] back up to where they were before," reveals Ludwig. The East Grandstand crowd exploded as Ludwig unfurled a magnificent, arching jump that hurled him just over the bar. "I brushed that one, too," he admits. "And I was hoping that one would stay!" Even after hitting the mat, Ludwig was unsure if the bar - often fickle - would remain in place. "I did a double take just to make sure it stayed up. I just had to make sure it was still there, and then it is real. Because then I was actually happy that I was after Adrian in the order. I recall looking up and I saw that it [the bar] was going to stay and just I gave this real strong fist bump kind of thing and then kind of got my composure back a little bit."
For the northeastern Ohio resident, it has been an interesting 6-year journey from high school freshman vault novice to NCAA champion. "I wasn't sure if I even bent the pole that entire freshman year," recalls Ludwig as he reflects on he got started at Lake Catholic High School just outside of Cleveland. "I think I just stiff-poled everything. I ended up the season jumping 12 feet." But the young vertical jumper was getting the hang of it. As a sophomore, he cleared 14"4; 15'7 as a junior; and concluded his high school career with his PR vault at a lofty 16'8ÂĽ".
"Five meters ten," he proudly proclaims.
He may not have been putting up Duplantis-like numbers, but the young vaulter faced several possible collegiate pathways. Ultimately, the choice narrowed down to between the University of Akron and the University of Missouri. "I was looking for the fully-immersive college experience. I wanted to see what it would be like living on a college campus. Akron was so close to home. I wasn't sure I was going to feel like I was away at school," explains the young vaulter who finally elected to enroll at Mizzou. "The decision was a confusing one. I went to Missouri and I enjoyed all of the things there. Being that it is in the SEC it had the athletic budget providing benefits for the athletes that Akron could not necessarily replicate. Also at the time, I wasn't going in with the mindset that I wanted to go to the place where I can be the best pole vaulter in the world because I was only jumping 5.10m out of high school. So I wasn't necessarily thinking, 'Oh, by my sophomore year, I'll be jumping heights to qualify for the world championships.' That wasn't really running through my head. If I had been thinking that way, I definitely would have made a different decision."
Ludwig did quite well his freshman year. Flourishing under the thoughtful tutelage of coach Dan Lefever, the Tiger frosh improved his vault PR by over a foot, clearing 5.46m/17'11" - high enough to set a new University of Missouri outdoor school record.
The young vaulter - versatile enough to have won the decathlon in the 2015 New Balance Nationals - understands that in a highly technical event like the pole vault precise and persistent work is required before the athlete is rewarded. And he began to harvest larger and larger rewards at Missouri. "There were many technical times at practices when I started to put stuff like that together. And I think the two biggest moments that I just sort of had this breakthrough were when I jumped 17'11" as a freshman. It started off as an awful [competition] day and I was in a terrible mood and I was very much expecting a poor performance. I started low and worked my way up to higher bars. And by the end of the day I had gotten a better rhythm and I started improving on every single jump I had taken. And I finished with a 7 inch improvement on my best. So it was a massive PR."
But Ludwig's seemingly comfortable transition to college athletics and university life would soon be disrupted when at the end of his freshman year his Mizzou coach and mentor Dan Lefever was unexpectedly released. "It was a hectic process when I found out that Coach Lefever would not be returning." With a void of vault leadership emerging at Missouri, Ludwig reconnected with the University of Akron and orchestrated a transfer back to northeastern Ohio.
The unplanned college transition was remarkably smooth as Ludwig and Zip coach Dennis Mitchell - a national class pole vaulter in his own right 40 years ago and now one of the most respected vault coach's in the nation - hit it off from the start. And, once again, knowledgeable coaching and athlete receptivity combined to produce yet another year of commendable vault progression. Ludwig has vivid recollections of one particular session. "This year, there was one practice in particular where I started to put together this technical aspect of the jump and immediately I was looking at a single jump - compared to when I would do something terrific but not correctly - which would result in a multiple-inch difference, a noticeable height difference in clearing some of these higher heights.," explains Ludwig who is a stickler about refining his jump technique. "It is something that I have been trying to replicate and establish in all of my jumps that come after that. And it was this big turning moment when I realized I could do it."
Ludwig has observed and come to appreciate the personalized approach that Mitchell brings to counseling his vaulters on technical vault refinement tailored to their particular needs. "He is very good about discerning what is something technical that needs to be improved as opposed to other aspects of the jumps that are just sort of stylish," offers the reigning outdoor Mid-American Conference vault champion. "I'm a big dynamic jumper; I'm fast; I'm kind of short; so I have to jump high. If I want to grip high; I have to take off from further out. So I have a very particular look to my jump, whereas someone like Shawn [Barber, the reigning world pole vault champion] grips very high, employs longer poles, and has this very different look from mine. So Coach Mitchell has very different technical aspects that need to be highlighted differently between the two of us. As a result, [Coach Mitchell] doesn't coach me like he coaches Shawn. He's very good about developing that personal style with each athlete and keeping what works best technically for each person." It is certainly worked for Ludwig as the Chardon, Ohio sophomore pushed up his vault PR yet another foot to 5.70m/18'8ÂĽ" - a mark that ranked him #3 on the Div. I list, 5th on the American list, and tied for 21st on the world list.
While Mitchell has done much to shape Ludwig into a more technically proficient vertical leaper, the Zip athlete knows there is more work to be done. "I think there are always things to improve." Ludwig - who hopes to make the 2020 Olympic team - has targeted 6.00 meters, just a foot away, as his next major clearance goal. While only 5 Americans have every cleared that height, given his two foot PR improvement over the past 2 years, Ludwig may well have a realistic shot to gain membership in that exclusive pole vault fraternity.
Ludwig's vault progression and his recent NCAA pole vault title is just further evidence of Akron's emergence as an increasingly influential collegiate track & field power. Consider this: in the last 4 years, only 10 Div. I schools have scored in both the men's and women's NCAA indoor and outdoor team championships. 9 of those schools compete in one of the five "Power 5" conferences. The other school is the University of Akron.
Ludwig knows what is contributing to the overall team success of the University of Akron track & field program. "I think one of the biggest things is the coaching staff that we have," the rising junior explains. "It is not just the pole vault," he points out. "We have one of the best horizontal and vertical jump squads in the country. Jumps coach Tomasz Smialek does a great job. And because of the success we are having, we are developing great competitive groups that are attracting attention nationally and we are able to get out and recruit better. We have earned a better reputation and respect. Because we have developed a community of competition and comradery with each other, people just excel when they come here. I don't think we really get too many top national recruits out of high school," declares Ludwig. "But what we do well is that we develop athletes very well," And with a smile he adds, "It's a great community."
After 2016's unanticipated year-end transfer scramble from Mizzou to Akron, Matt Ludwig has had a full year to evaluate the school switch he felt compelled to make so quickly. Was it the right move? "Yes, absolutely," offers the vaulter without hesitation. "As long as Coach Mitchell is around here, I'll be at the University of Akron to stay. That's my plan."