Each year, Tyler Gaumer is hopeful to find a thrill-seeking freshman willing to attempt to reach dizzying heights.
Three years ago, the Sterling girls track and field coach found a willing and able subject in Lauren Zuidema.
Pole vaulting runs in the Gaumer family. Tyler and his sister, Tori, competed at Illinois State; Tricia vaulted at Eastern Illinois; and Timmy was a decathlete, which includes the pole vault among its 10 events, at Illinois. They were all taught by their father, Max, a former track coach at Sterling.
Now Tyler is the one passing on his knowledge, and his prize pupil this season is Zuidema. Their coach-athlete partnership began 3 years ago, at the beginning of track season.
"Every year we take about seven freshmen to the pole vault pit, just to see who's got ability and see if there's anything we can work with there," Gaumer said. "[Lauren] very, very quickly surprised a lot of us. She was fearless at that point, which was amazing."
A lack of fear is only one of the qualities a good pole vaulter must have. They must also be fast and strong, something Zuidema was blessed with naturally, and her background in competitive dance, as well as being a member of the pom pon squads during football and basketball seasons, helped with her agility.
"It feels really weird at first," Zuidema said. "It's hard to get used to, but I knew it was something that I liked, and I wanted to try it more and get better at."
Zuidema has improved her performances each season. She cleared 9 feet as a freshman, then 9-6 as a sophomore and 10-0 as a junior. The bar was raised, literally and figuratively, when she cleared 10-6 in a meet March 9 at the Westwood Sports Complex.
The Sterling school record of 11-3 held by Tricia Gaumer, once seemingly unattainable, is now within her reach.
"I'd like to break that record," Zuidema said. "It's really high, but that's a good goal."
Coach Gaumer, when asked about the possibility of Zuidema breaking his sister's record, said it would be "bittersweet."
"It would be fun to have an additional kind of stamp, to be a part of this," Gaumer said.
To keep going higher, Zuidema noted she must improve on the turn phase of her vault. She currently goes over the bar on her back. Ideally, she would turn at the apex of the vault and go over the bar stomach-first.
Zuidema has a tendency to turn too quick, limiting the potential for a quality vault, or too late, which sends her crashing into the bar.
"I have bad days, and then it gets kind of frustrating," Zuidema said. "Then you just have to remember to move on past it, forget about it, and go on to the next meet or day or whatever, and hope for the best."
The ability to learn is certainly something Zuidema possesses. She is ranked No. 1 in Sterling's senior class with a grade point average of 4.295, and has not received a grade below an A- in 3-plus years of high school. She plans to become an orthodontist or a dentist, but is unsure where she will attend college.
When Gaumer first started working with Zuidema, the instruction was pretty much limited to how to grip the pole, take off running and see what you can do. He now schools her on the finer points of the sport, and the dividends are rolling in.
Some days, like 3 weeks ago when Zuidema cleared 10-6 for the first time, everything clicks. Some days are a struggle, but for coach and athlete, that's OK.
"We talk about not being able to win pretty every single time," Gaumer said. "Sometimes you just have to go compete. That's one of the greatest qualities of what Lauren does, and she always does it with a smile on her face too."
"This is just a different kind of a event, and that's what I like about it," Zuidema said. "Not everybody can do it, and it's really hard, but that's one of things I like about it the best."
FYI: 4-year pole vaulter with a personal best of 10-6 set May 9. ... State qualifier as a freshman and sophomore. ... Ranked No. 1 in her class academically