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Paul Malquist is a master at filtering out distractions and focusing on what is essential to his career as a pole vaulter.
Among other things, one of his best traits is the ability to turn the pressure of a big stage into a way of pushing his own limits — both mentally and physically — in the pole vault, where he is currently ranked second nationally among high schoolers by US Track and Field.
At the state meet this season, Malquist, a recent Gainesville High graduate, hit his initial mark of 15 feet on his final of three attempts, staving off elimination, before going on to set a new all-classification state record of 16 feet, 8 inches, his second straight state title at the Georgia Olympics.
“I really wanted that state record,” Malquist said. “It was so exciting to be able to win.”
For his efforts, Malquist is The Times 2010 Boys Track Athlete of the Year.
At the level Malquist, who will attend the University of Georgia on track scholarship, now competes, it’s more than setting up regular practice to maintain his physical conditioning.
He has enlisted a major figure in the pole vaulting community to help with coaching, trains rigorously on core strength, and has set up a schedule of regional and national competitions to get to the point where he can break through the 18-foot mark, hopefully sooner than later.
Recently, Malquist says his training has clicked with regular jumps that are clearing 17-feet, but isn’t going to count that toward a personal best until he gets it down in competition.
“Paul wants to be able to hit 17-6 by the end of the summer,” said his father, Glenn Malquist. “He’s just got to do it in competition.”
Putting together the perfect pole vault sequence is an exercise in the precision of technique. It combines a burst of speed from the first step all the way down the runway, arm positioning, grip, upper body strength and precise vision to make sure the pole is planted at just the right moment to thrust over the height of the bar. Even to the untrained eye, pole vaulting is a discipline that involves total body coordination.
On top of that, elite pole vaulters have to believe they are going to clear the mark they set the bar.
Already this summer, Malquist picked up a big win under the lights at night in the Golden South Classic in Orlando, Fla.
After hitting his first attempts of 15, 15-6 and 16, he won with his personal best of 16-9, winning first place by an entire foot.
He tried an attempt at 17 feet, but hit the bar on the way down.
What made this event unique was that Malquist had to block out the distractions of a thunder storm, which forced a weather delay of more than two hours. It forced the pole vaulters to wait it out until after dark to compete.
“I can block out the distractions pretty well,” Malquist said. “I just put in my iPod, and focus on staying ready.”
Malquist may not have always been so disciplined with his jumps, says his training coach and southeast development chair for U.S. pole vault, Aaron James.
“At first, he let his emotions get the best of him,” James said. “If he didn’t clear the bar on the first try, he would get panicked and try too hard.”
However, there was never any questioning his physical tools. As a lifelong athlete, Malquist was blessed with speed and strength. Malquist, who works with James at Athens Christian, has even tinkered with the idea of trying the decathlon, even though his first priority in college will squarely be the pole vault.
“Paul has good speed, body awareness and he wants to be good,” said James, who previously coached at Georgia, Clemson, Baylor and Liberty. “He has a natural aptitude.”
The remainder of the summer, Malquist will have plenty of opportunities to put his training into motion, trying every time out to break the 17 foot level.
First, he’ll travel to Greensboro, N.C. for the New Balance Nationals this week. Then, he’s planning state and regional qualifying for the nationals in Sacramento, Calif. later in the summer, along with a host of other events. Already, he’s made trips spanning the country, including appearances in Reno, Nev., Boston, Mobile, Ala., Lexington, Ky., and Baton Rouge, La.
“To see the level that he is competing at now is very exciting,” his father added.