by Craig Harvey
August 4, 2008
Fredonia's Olympian Stuczynski's Heart, Faith, Determination Land Her in Beijing
As so many Chautauqua County residents have done in the past, watching the Olympics this year will have extra special meaning.
For the first time since 1936, Chautauqua County will be represented in the Olympics as Jenn Stuczynski, a 2000 Fredonia High School graduate, will be adorned in the red, white and blue with a legitimate chance to bring home the gold medal in the pole vault.
The last Chautauqua County resident to compete for U.S.A. was boxer Jimmy Clark in 1936.
Ranked No. 2 in the world, the only person standing between Stuczynski and a gold medal is Russian Yelena Isinbayeva who holds the world record in the event at 16-feet-6 inches. Stuczynski's American record stands at 16-1 3/4.
Despite the differential between the two heights, it does not necessarily mean Isinbayeva will take the gold easily.
"You can't guarantee every day you're going to be jumping 16 feet," Jenn's father Mark Stuczynski said. "There are going to be days when you're out of rhythm or technically you can't figure out what you're doing wrong."
Watching Stuczynski clear jumps at ease makes some forget that the pride of Fredonia didn't even touch a pole until she was in the midst of obtaining her master's degree.
Forget the fact she was a standout basketball player for the Lady Hillbillies or the fact she was one-of-a-kind in softball where she excelled in centerfield. She didn't even begin track and field until her senior year when she became a state champion in the pentathlon. From her dedication in the offseason, to her skills on whatever playing surface she has graced, Stuczynski has always shined in athletics and has set herself apart from the others.
Someone who has seen first hand Stuczynski compete on a daily is her former high school softball coach and current athletic director, Tammy Rae.
"She is a great all-around athlete," she said. "She always has a good attitude. Pretty much what you asked her to do, she could do it. Her senior year, she took up track and won a state title in the pentathlon. That's a clue right there. She picked that up in one year and won a state title. That tells you something about her versatility as an athlete."
While earning her master's degree, Stuczynski was in the gym one day playing with the men in a pickup game at Roberts Wesleyan College.
Rick Suhr, a well-known pole vaulting coach was in the gymnasium and watched Stuczynski compete against the men. Suhr was impressed by Stuczynski's physical strength and speed. With most pole vaulters coming from a gymnastic background, Suhr felt her strength, speed and aggressive mindset were perfect for pole vaulting.
"You have been good at a lot of things in high school and college," Suhr said to convince Stuczynski to try pole vaulting. "But I think you can be great at pole vaulting. And there is a difference at being good and great at something."
But before Stuczynski began her pole vaulting journey, she had to break the news to her parents she would not be completing her studies for a master's degree.
"She was working on her master's degree and she decided she was going to give up her college education and put that on hold to pursue pole vaulting," Mark recalled. "We didn't know much about pole vaulting. We didn't think there had ever been anybody that made a living off of it. We just thought she was throwing her career in the wind. We were real cautious of it. We told her, 'you could do anything you put your mind to.' But deep down we were really questioning it. We were wondering if it was going to be the right decision. She said she couldn't contribute 50 percent to school and 50 percent to pole vault. It had to be 100 percent to either one and she felt she could be big on the circuit in pole vault."
Needless to say, Jenn convinced her parents and the rest is history.
With all the sports available to athletes why pole vaulting?
Mr. Stuczynski offers a comical response.
"I coached her through softball and I always coached Monday morning basketball for her. I was able to critique her and make points. But I knew absolutely nothing about pole vaulting. I just had to keep my mouth shut and just hope she did good. I still think to this day, that's one of the reasons why she chose pole vault - because dad couldn't get involved. ... We just hope she jumps high and sit there like any other parent and hope there is no injury."
At the U.S. Olympic trials July 6, Stuczynski gave her parents, fans and Fredonia supporters quite a scare.
With the opportunity to enter the competition when the bar got higher, Stuczynski decided to join at 15-feet-1 inch - a height that usually comes fairly easy to her. There, she missed her first two attempts and was in jeopardy of not making the team. She eventually went on to break the U.S. record with a leap of 16-1 3/4.
"She was nervous, but by the third jump, she said she was at peace and she wasn't worried if she didn't make it," Jenn's mother Sue said. "'Life goes on. There is something else I can do. I can go to Europe and compete.' She said she thinks her and her coach were the only two people at peace if she didn't make it. Everyone else was nervous."
Though Mr. and Mrs. Stuczynski were nervous on the third jump for their daughter, they were also nervous since they had already purchased their plane ticket for the Olympics.
"We were confident back in January so we started booking," Mark said. "We were confident she was going to go the distance. I will say we were real fearful Sunday night. Some of the announcers were very truthful. They were saying she doesn't look comfortable."
Stuczynski's composure on the third attempt at 15-1 not only showed how she has matured as a person and athlete, it also was an indication of her strong religious beliefs her parents have instilled in her from a young age.
"It has helped because we know ultimately, whether she made the Olympics or she didn't make the Olympics, she is in God's hands and he has a plan for her," Sue said. "Nothing is going to happen that she hasn't ordained in. So that gives you peace. Even though you want her to succeed, it gives you peace knowing that if she didn't, she is still in God's control."
If Stuczynski had not made the Olympics it would seem unfair the No. 1 pole vaulter in the United States of America would not be able to compete in the Olympics. U.S. sprinter Tyson Gay was less fortunate as he pulled up with a hamstring injury in the 200-meter run where he holds the U.S. record. Now, he will only compete in the 100.
"That's just not right," Mrs. Stuczynski said. "If you have the fastest time in all the meets leading up to it, it seems like you should be an automatic. That's not right."
"From what I understand, every country, or just about every other country, they will compete for second or third place but if you're the record holder in that country, you have an automatic bid to the Olympics," Mr. Stuczynski added.
Unfortunately, in today's sports, when an outsider thinks sports and success, instead of the success being a feel-good story, people quickly think steroids or performance enhancing drugs.
However, what some may not realize is the strict policy the National governing body for track and field implements on their athletes.
"She got a letter saying congratulations, you have been chosen to participate in this drug testing program and she thought, 'Well, no thank you,' and threw it away," Mrs. Stuczynski said. "She didn't realize that meant you have to take it. They just show up at her door."
Stuczynski is drug tested frequently. Those who test the athletes can show up at her door at the spur of the moment. Stuczynski must stay within a two-hour radius of her house at all times. There have been times where she has been at the mall, received a phone call on her cell phone and had to return home so she could be tested. If Stuczynski is outside the two-hour radius when they call, she must let the committee know. Failure to be within the two-hour radius more than twice when she is chosen to be tested results in disqualification from track and field.
Even though Stuczynski has given up basically her freedom, she has nothing to worry about as she has protected her image by staying free of performance enhancing drugs.
"She wants to keep a clean image," Mark said. "She said to be caught doing something like that would be a total let down for her family, community, coaching staff and she feels like she would just let so many people down. She wants to keep a clean image - not just for herself, but for the people that are behind her. I believe that the morals and beliefs and the faith that she does have, keeps her from doing those things."
Though the United States is strict, is believed that other countries are more lenient.
"We have heard there are other countries that there are laboratories to test and see if it will be out of their system by a certain drug-testing time," Mark said. "She just figures if God wants her there, and the work ethic is there and the commitment is there, she will be there."
When most kids grow up around Chautauqua County, they want to try soccer, baseball/softball, football or basketball. Pole Vaulting seems to be on the bottom half of the list next to surfing.
However, what many don't realize is how popular pole vaulting is in places such as Reno, Nev.
"We went to the pole vault summit in Reno, NV. and there were thousands of pole vaulters of all ages," Mark recalls. "We didn't think it was that big. But it is huge. Pole vaulting is big in the west coast where they do more outdoor track season. The coach made the comment to have someone of that caliber in pole vaulting in (the Fredonia) area is unusual. It's like having a great surfer coming out of Buffalo, N.Y. It just isn't an area where you promote surfing."
With the excitement of Chautauqua County's own representing the United States of America, the support the Stuczynski family has received is remarkable. From strangers to friends, it's hard for Mr. and Mrs. Stuczynski to go anywhere without receiving a warm exchange of pleasantries.
"We have a great church family at First Baptist," Mark said. "They have been really praying for Jenn during Wednesday night prayer meetings. They have been behind us. They are a silent partner in the whole support group. It's like an extended family."
Signs can be seen in front yards around the area in support of Stuczynski and T-shirts have recently gone on sale.
Fredonia Mayor Mike Sullivan commented his office has received hundreds of e-mails from community members asking what they can do to help honor Fredonia's Olympian.
"I hope we can enjoy this as a community," Mayor Sullivan said. "There is such a buzz on people. The fact we have someone competing at Beijing in the top of her field, we want to find a way to share the excitement. This is one of those things we can take pride in and it can't be measured."
With the pride and prestige put on Stuczynski to represent U.S.A., it is exciting for her and also comes with high expectations.
"I think she has got a lot more to go," Mrs. Stuczynski said. "I think she is capable of the world record.