by Scott Kindberg
June 24, 2022
A tour of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame on West Third Street in Jamestown reveals several noteworthy pieces of Jenn Suhr memorabilia.
On one wall is the front page of the OBSERVER, dated Aug. 19, 2008, which features a huge photo of the Fredonia native after she won a silver medal in the pole vault at the Beijing Olympics.
On the opposite wall are three posters of her in the run-up to and the aftermath of her gold medal-winning performance at the 2012 London Olympics; a framed 8-by-10 photo; and a “Gold Medal Tour” T-shirt.
In the span of four years, Suhr had literally and figuratively cleared every goal she had set for herself.
Thursday she announced on social media that she was retiring.
“It. Is. Official,” she wrote. “I say goodbye, not with a heavy heart, but with an enthusiasm that fills my heart and soul. This small town girl is ready for some small town living.”
The quote was followed with a red-heart emoji.
The 2000 Fredonia Central School graduate gave everything she had to her sport.
Reading Suhr’s “goodbye” only reaffirmed what an incredible career she had.
Consider her accomplishments as noted in her post yesterday:
¯ Captured 17 U.S. championships, a feat no other American pole vaulter has ever done.
¯ Claimed the 2013 World Athletics Championships silver medal, and the World Athletics indoor gold medal in 2016, the latter of which was won without a single miss in the competition.
¯ Set 12 American records and became the first American woman to break both the 16-foot and 5-meter barriers.
¯ Broke the world indoor record with a clearance of 16 feet, 5.5 inches at the USATF Indoor Championships, a mark that still stands.
¯ Is the owner of three of the five highest-ever women’s pole vault clearances indoors as well as nine of the top 20 clearances by American women outdoors.
¯ Was named Pole Vaulter of the Decade by Track & Field News, and The Buffalo News named her as Western New York’s greatest-ever female athlete across all sports.
Not bad for a woman who didn’t take up the sport until 2004. Five years later, she was inducted into the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame.
Fellow enshrinee, Nolan Swanson, who was an All-American runner at Wake Forest University in the 1990s and world cross country championship qualifier as a professional, didn’t mince words when he told me 10 years ago that “we’ll never” see a gold medalist in Chautauqua County again.
“To be peaking and be perfect at a perfect event like the Olympics is the most incredible thing that has happened to an athlete from our county,” he told me the day after Suhr won gold. “It’s incredible and inspiring.”
Swanson, who is a 2003 CSHOF inductee, knows the hard work it takes, having qualified for the Olympic Trials in 2000 and having compiled one of the finest running resumes in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“(Suhr’s gold-medal performance) gives you goose bumps,” he said in 2012. ” … To have that happen on the right day is what it’s all about, and she did it.”
What’s remarkable is that Suhr very well could have found success in sports other than track & field. Stan Marshaus, the former director of golf at Chautauqua Golf Club, taught Suhr the game when she was a college student at Roberts Wesleyan College.
“She was an unbelievable athlete,” Marshaus, also a CSHOF inductee, said in 2012. “I believe that she would be on the LPGA Tour if she had put forth the same effort in golf.”
Randy Anderson, CSHOF president, couldn’t hide his glee after watching Suhr win gold a decade ago.
“This has to be one of the greatest sporting achievements in the history of Chautauqua County,” he told me. “We’ve honored terrific athletes for winning league titles, sectional titles and All-American status, but this lady is the best in the world. Think about that.”
When Suhr was a student at Fredonia High, she played softball, basketball, soccer and was a standout in track & field. In the latter sport, she won the New York State Public High School Athletic Association pentathlon title in 2000, which was her senior year. She continued her track & field career at Roberts Wesleyan where she also played basketball. As a senior, she averaged 24.3 points and 6.7 points per game, sparking the Raiders to the NCCAA national championship game. At the time of her graduation, Suhr was the school’s all-time leading scorer.
That was not a surprise to John Bongiovanni, who was Fredonia’s girls junior varsity coach for one season in the late 1990s. Years later, he still marveled at a play that Suhr made during a Hillbillies’ practice.
“Jenn was at the foul line extended,” Bongiovanni told me in 2012. “She faked right, dribbled to her left, took two steps and laid (the ball) in. It was effortless. I’ve never seen anything like it, boys or girls.”
With the benefit of time, it’s pretty clear that what Suhr, now 40, has accomplished since leaving the village of Fredonia more than two decades ago will likely never be equaled in our little corner of the world ever again.
Noted Anderson a decade ago: “As far as an individual sport, I honestly can’t think of anyone who has achieved anything greater. Mount Rushmore? Maybe they are going to have to build a separate mountain for her.”