This track and field season has been one of defying gravity and shattering personal records in the pole vault for Osceola High School's Carson Waters.
The senior, who has lost just once this season in his signature event, is seeded first going into Saturday's Class 3A state meet with a mark of 15 feet, 6 inches, a foot higher than his closest competitor.
A state title is more than within reach, but Waters has loftier goals. He wants to break the state record of 16-8 set by Mike Vani of Merritt Island in 2009.
"My goal is to clear 16-9," Waters said. "That's what I've been working toward all season."
Waters could have company on the medal stand with as many as eight area pole vaulters in contention for a top-three finish in their respective classifications at the state meets, held at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.
That group includes Jesuit's Nick Catchur and Tampa Catholic's Nicole Carroll, the defending 2A boys and girls champions. Others, such as Osceola's Jen Kistemaker and Dunedin's Olivia Welsh, have broken long-standing records at regular-season meets with heights that rank among the state's best.
"There's no question this area has become one of the best in the state at producing champion-caliber pole vaulters," said Dave Mason, who coaches vaulters primarily from Pinellas County as part of the 727 track club.
The boys pole vault is one of the original events at the state meet, dating to 1915. The girls event was added in 1996.
The area has had plenty of champions, but the number of place-winners has grown so much that there were at least two area boys and girls vaulters who placed in the top eight in all four classifications at last year's meets.
The volume of elite vaulters is due in large part to the availability of coaches and track clubs devoted to teaching the sport year-round. In the bay area there are three coaches — Mason, Bob Leidel with Florida Pole Vault Academy in Hillsborough County and Russell Jerothe with High Standards in Pasco County — who started training high-level vaulters in the past three years. Jerothe's sons, Devon and Garrett, are competing in the Class 3A meet Saturday. Devon (14-6) is the second seed in the event behind Waters.
"The event is so technical that the three to four months during the high school season is not nearly enough to be completely efficient," Leidel said.
Pole vaulting is not for everyone. After all, it takes some rare quality to plant a fiberglass pole into a box while running at a sprinter's speed, hang upside down like a vampire bat and swivel gracefully to thrust over a bar often set at heights the equivalent of an interstate overpass. On the family tree of athletes, vaulters swing from their own cracked branch.
Vaulters come from all kinds of backgrounds. Carroll was a gymnast. Catchur and Welsh played soccer.
"I came out during my freshman year after soccer season," said Catchur, a senior. "I started as a 400 runner, then I picked up the pole vault. It wasn't scary. But I quickly found out it wasn't easy either."
For some beginners, the first obstacle in pole vaulting is to get over the fear of flying through the air. The next step is to master the technical aspects. Whatever the height of the athlete, pole vaulting remains a matter of physics and geometry.
"I have a freshman vaulter who is 4-10 and 105 pounds and she performs as well as anyone because she's so sound technically," Leidel said. "You don't have to be big or powerful. There's more to it than just jumping with a stick. It's all about technique."
Opportunities for aspiring vaulters can be limited. The cost of maintaining standards can be costly, so much that some schools do not have adequate facilities. Poles also are expensive, with costs as high as $600. Then there's the lack of coaching at most schools for an event that is so specialized.
"Because of the lack of equipment and coaches, many schools are more than happy to send their vaulters to me or another coach who specializes in it," Mason said. "That's a big reason you've seen such a vast amount of improvement the past few years."
Waters will take aim at the state record on a 16-foot pole that weights 180 pounds. He started using the pole last week.
"I'm close in practice, and I feel I can get the height I want this week," he said.
Waters is not the only area vaulter on a record-breaking mission.
So is Catchur. In fact, Catchur could attain it first considering he vaults on Friday, a day before Waters' meet.
"The biggest thing is winning and setting a personal record," Catchur said. "But I would like to get the state record. I know Carson would, too. It should be fun."
Bob Putnam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BobbyHomeTeam.