Chatting with Bubba Sparks: Veteran pole vaulter Special

Posted Dec 9, 2017 by Markos Papadatos
Veteran pole vaulter Bubba Sparks chatted with Digital Journal about his career in pole vault (which exceeds five decades), as well as his advice for aspiring athletes.
Bubba Sparks
Bubba Sparks
Rob D'Avellar
On his proudest professional moments in pole vault, Sparks said, "Though I have had a fair amount of personal success, most of my proudest moments have been celebrated with athletes I've worked with. I don't like to list them because I feel it takes credit away from them. After all, they are the ones that cleared those bars."
He shared that his personal best is 5.51 meters, which he set in 1978. "On three consecutive weekends I jumped 5.49 meters, 5.50 meters and 5.51 meters. These were at pole vault only meets so we didn't submit the heights. At that time, a few athletes put up marks at these types of meets that were questioned and I didn't want to be associated with someone who would fake a mark in a closed competition. In college, I won the NAIA Nationals Outdoors in 1975 and 1976, and I got 2nd indoors both years. In 1976, I won the USTFF (then equivalent of USATF) National Collegiate Championships. College best was 5.20 meters," he explained.
Sparks continued, "I was selected by the Sports Supply Group, who provided the equipment for 16 of the Olympic Sports, to be a coaching technician for the 1996 Olympic Games. In this position, I got to hang out at the practice and competition fields and work with the Olympians and their coaches for the final five weeks of preparation for the Games in Atlanta."
He further added, "I coached or advised many elite and Olympic athletes over the years. I've been competing in masters competitions since 1988, so almost 30 years. I've won numerous national championship medals, and won World Championship Medals on five continents."
Sparks is drawn to pole vault due to the "people" and the "spirit of the event." "I love how athletes help each other, and even coaches are friends and seek each other's advice. We are welcoming to all no matter what their level of accomplishment. Everyone cheers and helps everyone," he said.
He noted that the hardest aspect of the sport is "balancing proper training with vault technique." "I knew I wasn't the fastest or strongest guy, so I spent a ton of time trying to perfect a technical model. At the same time, you have to constantly be trying to get stronger and faster. Aging is a real challenge. My orthopedic surgeon told me that training to be an elite athlete is like walking on a balance beam. Do too much and you fall off injured. Do too little and you fall off of progress. As you age, the more narrow the beam becomes and the longer the climb back on to it," he said.
"For me. personally, in 2008. I went through bouts of extreme anemia and was getting injured doing the smallest things," Sparks shared. "I found out that my body no longer makes testosterone. Average for my age is 552 nl and I was at 8 nl, because we are drug tested at big events, that's not an option. I have to be super careful in all of my training. It's very rare that I complete my jumps in a meet. Almost always, I have to withdraw with jumps remaining because I can feel something's about to blow up. I like to say, 'I know how to pole vault if I can only survive the run up'."
Digital transformation of pole vault
On the impact of technology in the sport of pole vault, he said, "I've always been a technical student so I'm not seeing such a great gain from that. Pole technology is such that you can match pole type to a particular vault style or ability. The great Alan Launder used to say that we each have a base model we rely on, but we overlay on that model our own individual style.Mondo Duplantis is a perfect example of a vaulter who mixes models and styles."
For aspiring pole vaulters, Sparks' advice is as follows: "Enjoy the process and have fun. This will be my 53rd year vaulting and I still don’t fully understand or have consistent control of the vault. Be persistent because your biggest gains will come after you feel like your stuck and want to quit. Be open minded. The mind is like a parachute and works best when open. Study and ask people training and technique questions. Get to the Pole Vault Summit in Reno! With 2,000 vaulters and coaches on 14 runways, you will have the time of your life."
On his inspiration to pursue pole vault, he said, "I saw Bob Seagren on TV jumping at the Sunkist Invitational. I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I went out in the garage and grabbed some boards and started. At the time, they were building a bunch of new houses in the area and the carpets were on bamboo rods. When the carpet rolls were empty we would take our 'new poles' home. I think we were jumping 2.40 meters to 2.70 meters and landing on the ground in our back yards before we ever saw a facility meant for pole vaulting. My friend, Don Curry, joined me shortly after I started trying the event, and we have been jumping together for over 50 years."
To learn more about veteran pole vaulter Bubba Sparks, check out his official website.