Riga, N.Y. (WROC-TV) — Jenn Suhr is nothing, if not competitive. The Roberts Wesleyan grad and her husband, Rick, worked in tandem to take the pole-vaulting world by storm.
Suhr picked up a silver medal in the 2008 Olympics and the gold in 2012.
She didn’t win a medal in 2016 after coming down with a mystery illness, but she did bring home a new perspective.
This year, Suhr decided it was time to retire.
She sat down with Adam Chodak at her home in Riga to talk about that decision along with the highs and lows of pole vaulting.
Adam Chodak: So why don’t start with 2012, you win the gold medal. What’s your feeling around that now versus 10 years ago, has it changed at all when you think back to that?
Jenn Suhr: Seems like a long time ago. At times it seems like it was forever ago as in the beginning of my career and now looking at it, you realize just how much work and how rare it is. At the time, you’re just constantly going and it’s meet after meet and you’re training for it and you expect yourself to do well there and now looking back at it, you realize how much could have actually gone wrong to get to that point. You have to make the US team, you have to be healthy, you have to make finals at the Olympic Games, you have placed top 3 then you have to win and you realize how much could actually go wrong. So I think the further away I get from it, the more I look back thinking, wow, I’m glad I didn’t know all this then.
AC: So a little bit of luck then in addition to the insane amount of talent?
JS: There is and especially in pole vault because you need every part of your body. You pole vault, you need your fingers, you need your toes, your hand, your shoulder, and one injury and the entire system derails and that kind of what happens the older you get, you know, a knee will start, a back will start and it’s just so easy to get hurt in such a violent event.
AC: You talk about all the work it takes to build up to the main event. How did you get back on the horse? You got the gold. What made you say, you know what, we’re going to keep going?
JS: There was just so many goals that I had and Rick had a lot of goals with me and we’re both very driven people so when I wasn’t motivated, he was. When he wasn’t motivated, I was, so we kind of just kept pushing each other through it, and 2013, I set the world record. It’s very rare to win the Olympic gold and come back and win the world record and then you had World Championships in Moscow and it was constant go where we were one meet after another after another, indoor, outdoor season, so we just had our mind made up where we were going to do as much as we can when were healthy and when I was jumping well.
AC: 2016, the sickness came. You had gotten back on the horse, training, everything right up until that moment…
JS: That was a hard one to deal with, just because I was jumping so well going in. In 2012, I actually tore a quad muscle going into the US Trials so I was very concerned about even making the team and it was a relief once I made the team because then I knew I was healthy enough to train. Going into the 2016 games I was excited because I knew I was jumping well, I knew where I was in my jump, I was conditioned, I was healthy and I hadn’t been healthy for a long time so I think that was almost more devastating of a meet mentally because I was physically ready to go.
AC: How have you dealt with that since?
JS: I think it takes time and after it happened I honestly just realized, wow, I won a gold and I won a silver, I mean, how can I be mad here and I think it gave me a perspective to be able to talk better to people, to be able to explain what it felt like to be on the very top and the very low and I had never really experienced that until 2016 when it was completely just mentally devastating then I could talk about it and I knew what I did to get back to competing and get back to the mental state that was healthy.
AC: I know I didn’t and I wonder how many other people didn’t understand how sick you really were. It wasn’t just a flu or anything like that.
JS: They X-Rayed my lungs afterward and there was still scar tissue on them. And with COVID it was very concerning with the doctors, they just wanted to make sure I was going to be OK and to stay away from everything until something came out, a vaccine, because of what happened in Rio and how weak my immune system had been.
AC: Do you think that factored into your decision to retire?
JS: No, I’ve done this for a long time, the decision was both of us. We had done what we wanted to and there was a whole other life out there that we wanted to experience without the rigidity of pole vault. We lived this. We didn’t just do this on the weekends. We 100% lived what we did and with that it took a big toll on yourself and we’re done living meet to meet, practice to practice and I mean we just have so much that we want to do while we can still do it. We want to hike while our knees can still hike.
AC: I remember the last time we talked you had talked about getting some type of camper and traveling…
JS: We’re still talking about that and it’s funny, we want to try to travel. I want to go see Maine, but the rule is the animals have to come, I’m not raveling without the animals so we’re going to have to upgrade from that little 15-footer we have out there because I plan on getting another dog and I have 4 cats, so they’re all coming.
AC: Where does that love of animals come from, by the way?
JS: As a kid, my entire family is like that. My sister has had turkeys and everything you can imagine so our entire family, we’ve always had animals.
AC: One thing I was wondering is when you talk about wanting to be good, if not great at anything you do. How do you move past that because that competitive edge might not retire with you?
JS: We’ve talked about joining things like a kickball team or softball team or bowling league because we do like being competitive and we like being in that atmosphere but I think right now we both are enjoying not being competitive, we’re both enjoying not having to stress about wins and losses and that’s what we say about coaching, we just want to coach and help out and we’re doing these little individual training sessions with people, but we don’t want to be in the thick of it anymore.
AC: Where did that competitive nature come from?
JS: I’ve always been like that. My grandfather was a golfer and I was out with him young and he was constantly trying to, can you get this closer to the cup that you? It started young, I just think I’ve always been competitive and Rick, he’s the youngest of 3 brothers and sisters so he grew up that way also.
AC: I want to go back, you said you have a high and a low and now might be able to speak to more people who have gone through something, maybe on the cusp of getting something and then it all falls apart. What’s your message to them now that you’ve actually been through something like that?
JS: I think, not to let it take your will. You’ll actually feel worthless at a time like this is what I’ve known myself for, this is how I identify myself and when it’s gone you feel like you’ve lost your whole self worth and I think that was important to learn how to come back from that and not let it take my will and keep fighting and honestly you have to be around people that recognize you not for what you’re doing, but who you are. And that’s one thing Rick and I have done. Our circle is small, but the people we have in it, they couldn’t care less whether I pole vault or not and I think that’s important.
AC: Will you keep pole vaulting in your life?
JS: No! I am done pole vaulting. Someone asked me if I can just do some drills and stay in shape and I said I’ll do some stuff, but I’m done pole vaulting. I’m done with the pain at 40 years old, that’s a lot on your body so I’ve got other hobbies to take up like jogging.
AC: What was the feeling like pole vaulting, soaring? Is there a thought that goes through your mind in those moments?
JS: It all depends on the bar honestly. There have been some bars I’ve made that have been high, but aren’t meaningful so it doesn’t mean anything to me. Some bars I’ve made that are low that someone would wonder why is she celebrating it, but the background going into making that bar is what’s important so there’s always a backstory and that’s what determines how great of a feeling it is. So there’s sometimes where I’ve been, like 2008, I was on my third attempt at a 15-1 bar if I made it I was on the Olympic team if I missed, I was off. I mean, 15-1, I come in at that all the time, it’s my opening bar, but when I made that on a third attempt, that jump was more exhilarating than jumping 16-1. So it’s all the background information that determines what that bar means.
AC: I see this with professional athletes every once in a while. There’s the retirement, then there’s the reentry. Is this final?
JS: This is final, definitely final, there is no reentry. One thing about pole vault and where I am with my status with track and field there’s always drug testing so I had to let them know where I was every day for an hour. So every day I had to be accountable from 6-7 so if I went from here and stayed at my cottage they had to know I was there, they had to know if I went to the airport, they had to know I was going to the airport at that time. I mean, they’ve come and met me at a doctor’s office in Rochester before so they’ve had to know where I was for one hour and I am done at 40 years old living like that, I’m enjoying my freedom.
AC: You’re always very quick to point out that this is a partnership. This wasn’t just Jenn Suhr just pole vaulting, this was Rick as well. A team effort. Now that this is coming to an end, any reflections on that?
JS: I think that when I talk and when I speak to people and when I talk about pole vaulting I think the thing I’m most proud of is that we stuck with it with the highs and lows together and we pulled each other through because there are times when you’re like maybe I should go back to college, maybe I should get a different job and we’ve been able to pull each other through those parts of it and I think that’s probably the biggest thing we started with each other, we started with Adidas, we started with our same agent and we ended with all the same and think that says a lot for us and our loyalty and how we’re able to overcome things that most people would have retired on. There were probably 3 or 4 times people might have counted me out and we just went back to that building and we said nope let’s refocus ourselves and we did it together.
AC: COVID had a huge impact on the Olympics, pushed it back a year. How did that impact your performance in the 2021 games?
JS: I was at the way upper part of age so one year is like 3 to 5 years. When they set it back a year I knew that I was in trouble because I knew I was hanging on already and I thought, OK, we’ll just go to 2021 and that’s when I had right Achilles problems, which is normally left, but I had right and then I had double Achilles surgery and I came back from that and then I had a pretty bad fall and I came back from that so there have been times that I’ve thought, God, I should stop, but I don’t want to retire because of an injury or be forced to retire and that’s why I kept going because I wanted to retire on my own terms when I was healthy.
AC: Was there one moment, one thing, where you said, you know what, this is it?
JS: I think when I booked the camping trip to Allegany-Limestone with my family and it was the same day as Worlds and I wanted to go on the camping trip more that’s when I knew that, you know what Rick, it times for us to get out. I was looking forward more to camping with him and my dogs and family that I was pole vaulting anymore.