It hasn’t been easy for Erin Kelleher to follow her passion in sports. It’s not like she could sign up for Little League Pole Vaulting or practice her craft at the nearest playground, since playgrounds rarely have vaulting pits.
But Kelleher has been undeterred in her quest to be the best vaulter she can be, and she’s already proven that she’s the best vaulter in the state – Kelleher, a rising junior at Padua Academy, has won the Delaware state championship the last two years, and this year she set a state record with a vault of 12 feet, seven inches.
That broke the state record of 12′ 6″ that Kelleher had set a month before during the regular season. The height she achieved was 4″ higher than the State record and a full three feet higher than the second place finisher this year at States.
In fact, her vault of 12′ 7″ was better than any of the boy vaulters in Delaware this past season. (The top vaulter A.I. DuPont’s Leroy Lynch came in at 12′ 00″.)
And it qualified her for the New Balance Outdoor Nationals in Greensboro, N.C., this month. She finished 13th out of 27 vaulters, with a best of 12′ 6.25″. The event was won by Chloe Cunliffe of West Seattle, Wash., with a vault of 14′ 4.75″.
“It was a great experience,” Kelleher said. “I got to compete against the best and held my own. You just don’t get that kind of competition in Delaware. Going to Nationals let me see how far I’ve come and how far I have to go still. And it made me realize how hard I have to work to get to that level.”
Early days as a competitive gymnast helped Kelleher adapt to pole vaulting
Kelleher was a gymnast before she discovered pole vaulting and both she and her mother, Laura Kelleher, said that early exposure to gymnastics made the switch to pole vaulting a lot easier.
Still, it’s not an easy sport to pursue simply because there are so few vaulters and so few facilities and/or coaches for them. That’s why Laura Kelleher was a little skeptical when Erin – then in the seventh grade – told her she wanted to try her hand at pole vaulting.
But that skepticism disappeared the first time Erin actually tried the sport. And after that, Mom never questioned her daughter’s choice.
“When she got done her first session she walked away with a huge smile on her face,” Laura Kelleher said. “It was like that time you stepped on a college campus and said to yourself ‘This is it. This is where I belong.’ And that’s the feeling Erin got the first time she tried pole vaulting.
“Ever since that day we’ve never looked back. She truly loves it. She truly loves the challenges it brings and she really works hard at it. And I think she really likes the fact that it’s something different and not everybody can do it.”
As soon as it became evident that Erin was serious about pole vaulting and was willing to put in the long hours and hard work it would take to excel at it, her parents went searching for a vaulting coach. It’s such a specialized sport, they knew regular track and field coaches didn’t have the experience or expertise to help Erin get to the next level.
Kelleher looks outside of Delaware for specialized coaching
So, they consulted with Padua coach Marnie Giunta, who directed them to Brian Mondschein, a former All-American and three-time national champion at Virginia Tech who runs Philly Jumps, a training facility for jumpers and vaulters. Erin Kelleher said his input has been invaluable.
“There’s a lot of technical things involved [in pole vaulting] and having coaches who really know the sport is great,” Erin said. “It’s made a big difference, because we can focus on the little things, and those little things can make a big difference.”
Kelleher hopes they can also lead to a college scholarship someday, and maybe even a spot on the national team. She has two years left at Padua, so she knows she has plenty of time to add to her already impressive resume.
“I’m going to work as hard as I can at this and see where it takes me,” she said. “That’s why I stopped doing other [track] events, so I could concentrate on pole vaulting. It’s something I love doing and something I’ve had some success doing, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.”