Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Vault to redemption

Issue date: 4/22/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

The sound exploded throughout the indoor track - the kind of unusually loud, 'something just happened' sound that can capture an entire crowd's attention at any given moment.

It was Jan. 11, 2008, at the Chippewa Open. Athletes and spectators alike stopped what they were doing, turned toward the center of the track and wondered what just took place.

What was it? Where was it? Who was it?

Folded up in the vault box, underneath an unchallenged cross bar and out of nearly everyone's sight was pole vaulter Ashley Esparza. She was not hurt because she just smacked her head on the box, nor upset because she did not come anywhere close to the bar in her first collegiate attempt - but angry.

The once overanxious and hyped-up freshman's season ended prematurely, only one jump into her first season.

"I was pissed off," she said. "I still don't really know what happened."

Esparza then explained the injury in "pole vaulting language." She planted the pole, got into the air and rocked back, ready to go over the bar. Suddenly, she was upside-down and realized she was not anywhere close to the bar. She tried to bail out of the jump; she flipped and twisted and turned all the while trying to land onto the mat.

She missed her mark, landing on an angled part of the mat, which was just enough for her to bounce off and hit her head on a metal box.

"So I guess," she joked, "pole vault is a fun sport in the fact that you can hurt yourself pretty easily."

The scene

As she laid there, trainers, coaches and teammates huddled around. Her parents, Mike and Suzanne, came down from the stands, and they were followed by the arrival of a back board, neck brace and ambulance, ultimately sending her for a short stay in the hospital.

"I wanted to hurt somebody at the time because it was really stupid," she said. "I remember thinking, 'Why is everyone overreacting?' I didn't think it was that bad, then I saw the ambulance and thought, 'Oh, great, I broke my neck.'"

"It barely hurt at all, I swear," she continued, laughing. "It felt like maybe I stretched my back out really far when I had folded in half ... maybe I pulled a muscle or something, but it didn't really feel like I did anything."

Head coach Karen Lutzke had a differing opinion.

"It was scary," she said. "Regardless of who the athlete is, the hope is they're OK and can keep doing what they love to do."

At the hospital, X-rays came up negative, but Esparza then learned of her season's fate after a CT scan revealed a fractured vertebra.

Her dad, Mike Esparza, tried to put a positive spin on the situation and had a box of tissues thrown at him as a 'thank you.'

"She was frustrated to say the least," he said. "That was the hardest part as a parent, not being able to do anything about it."

Mother Suzanne Esparza, a nurse, said of the injury: "She could have been paralyzed if she would have landed more pressure on her neck or cervical spine."

Back to the runway

Esparza was off the track for the rest of the year, but was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA.

This March, Esparza stood on the runway at the Mid-American Conference Championship, the same nerves wreaking chaos in her body that she felt just a year earlier.

"I just had to tell myself to relax," she said. "It wasn't like getting pumped up, it was like 'OK, I've done this for six years now, just breathe.'"

Moments later, she found herself in the vault box again, this time on her feet, without making a sound and unnoticed to everyone around.

"I did something weird and landed in there again," she said. "It was almost the same thing that happened last year."

Not fazed, she walked back to her start position, refocused and ran back at it, this time clearing high over the box that had once proved to be an obstacle.

"People don't understand that pole vault is as much mental as it is physical," Lutzke says. "But she kept pushing, she doesn't give up and she's come a long way."

A gymnast for 10 years before taking up track, Esparza is used to throwing her body around and tapped into her gymnastics roots post-injury for help.

"Now, I visualize things again, which is what I always did in gymnastics," she said. "I have a specific mental routine that I go through before each vault."

Ashley finally realized her dad may have been on to something that night in the hospital.

"If I have a bad day vaulting now," she said. "I think to myself 'Well, you're still vaulting and that's a lot better than not vaulting, so you might as well make the day worth it.'"

Today, Mike still puts a positive spin on Ashley's injury, this time without the risk of being hit with a box of tissues.

"You have to go through some adversity," he said. "I think it was probably good for her. It makes you re-evaluate how much you want to do something."

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