In a three-year span, Tyler Porter has gone from a broken back to broken personal records.
The University of Tennessee pole vaulter and Jefferson High graduate has spent his entire collegiate career battling back from an injury he sustained in the summer before his freshman year with the Vols. Now in his third outdoor season, he’s certainly showing signs of recovery.
Porter tied for seventh in the Division-I men’s pole vault at Wednesday’s NCAA Championships at the University of Oregon, clearing the bar with a personal-best vault of 17 feet, 8.5 inches. His top-seven finish secured him a spot on the All-American team, adding him to an illustrious list of Tennessee athletes to earn the distinction.
“It’s an accomplishment just to be added that list, because of the rich tradition that surrounds our program,” Porter said. “Both of my teammates are All-American, and I felt like I was kind of beneath them my whole career at Tennessee. Now that I’m finally at the same level as them, I feel like we can keep pushing and competing with each other to make each other better.”
Even three years after he broke a vertebra in his lower back when he fell during a high school nationals practice session in 2010, Porter claims he’s still not 100 percent.
The incident happened at Jefferson, where he won three state championships with the Dragons. He fell on a concrete portion of the pole vault pit, and was forced to wear a back brace for several months. His core muscles were weakened by the injury, requiring extensive rehabilitation.
“I spent the next two or three months doing rehab just trying to get back to full strength,” Porter said. “I’m still trying to get back to 100 percent — I still don’t feel like I’m where I need to be, but it’s coming along nicely.”
Nicely is a fitting word for Porter’s performance at this year’s national championships, and not just for his PR jump.
Had it not been for a broken pole, he might have placed even higher.
His pole snapped in four places on his way up during an 18-2.5 attempt. After a backflip into the pit, he landed on his stomach.
And he wasn’t too happy about it.
“The jump felt really nice going into it, and I was really excited how it was developing,” Porter said. “I think it was going to be a good jump, and then all of a sudden it just snapped and everything fell out from underneath me.
“I was really mad. I wasn’t even scared that the pole had snapped or that I could’ve just been killed. I was just really mad that the pole gave out on me.”
Regardless of the misfire, he’s calling the 2013 outdoor season a success.
He entered the year with a PR of 17-1, and reached 17-5 at the Texas Relays in March. He had been closing in on 17-8 all season, and picked the perfect time to do it.
“It finally came at the right time at the NCAA meet, so it worked out best,” Porter said.
Porter has two outdoor seasons and one more year of indoor competition left, and he’s made his goals clear before he graduates.
The first is to crack 18 feet, a far cry from his 16-7.25 vault that won him his third and final state championship in 2010.
He continued a long tradition of pole vault success at Jefferson, which began nearly five decades ago. The Dragons have won 19 state championships in the pole vault since 1964.
Porter’s grandfather, Jack Keen, set the groundwork for Jefferson track and field in the 1960s. His father, Gary Porter, currently coaches the Dragons’ pole vaulters.
“For some reason, pole vaulting has been one of the events that Jefferson athletes can excel in,” Gary Porter said. “Pole vaulting is kind of a cult — you get hooked on it, then they kind of get addicted to it. It’s something they enjoy doing, and they work hard to get better at the sport.”
The Dragons’ most recent pole vault title came last month, when Mason Hamrick won the Class AA title with a leap of 15 feet.
A former teammate of Hamrick’s, Tyler Porter said that kind of high school number will easily get Hamrick on a college team after his senior season.
“He still has a year left, so he could go on to 16 of 16-6 senior year and get on anyone’s track team,” Porter said. “I definitely think in the next 2-3 years we’ll see some more talent coming out of Jefferson track and field.”
And some potentially tough competition in the future for Porter, who aims to add an indoor All-American honor to his name later this year, and eventually finish top three in the SEC.
It’s a high goal to reach, but Porter has proven to be relatively good at getting over obstacles, from pole vault bars to broken bones.
“You never know — track’s a weird sport,” Porter said. “One year you could be at the bottom, the next year you could be at the top.”