June 17, 2016

Saving His Best for Last at Meet of Champions, PHS Senior Birnie Takes 4th in Pole Vault With PR


VAULTING AHEAD: Princeton High track star Nick Birnie heads down the runway in the pole vault last Wednesday at the Meet of Champions at Central Regional High in Bayville. Senior Birnie, the Group 4 champion in the pole vault, cleared a personal record 14’0 in taking fourth at the prestigious competition. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

For Nick Birnie, hurting his back competing in rowing helped put him on the track to stardom in the pole vault for Princeton High.

“Midway through sophomore year I herniated a disk in my lower back and I had to quit rowing crew,” said Birnie.

“After all the physical therapy and everything, I decided to pick up the slightly less strenuous sport, the pole vault.”

While pole vaulting didn’t involve the repetitive stress of rowing, it took Birnie a while to get the hang of the event as he got into it during winter track his junior year.

“I was fairly fit and I had the athleticism already so the hardest part for me was learning the technique,” said Birnie.

“It is incredibly complicated, more than I thought at first. Pretty much that first full year I was doing drills, learning how to hold the pole properly and how to get off the ground. Probably the hardest part is conquering the fear of running towards the pit and planting the pole and jumping off of it. Once you get over that, it gets a lot easier a lot faster.”

After learning the ropes as a junior and achieving a personal best of 10’6,  Birnie was primed for a big final campaign.

“It was my senior year and I decided that I was going to commit to it more,” said Birnie.

“I wanted to try hard and improve my personal record. Last year I learned the basics and now I wanted to get some real jumps in.”

That commitment has paid big dividends for Birnie as he improved by leaps and bounds over the winter.

“We practiced the pole vault once or twice a week at Jadwin Gym at the university and that was fantastic,” said Birnie.

“My PR went from 10’6 to 13 feet by the end of the winter season. In the pole vault, that is kind of crazy. I was excited.”

The winter ended on a down note, though, for Birnie as he no-heighted in the indoor sectional meet.

“The day before indoor sectionals, they told me that if I won, we would win the sectional,” recalled Birnie.

“I think that put a lot of pressure on me and I definitely over thought it. That was a learning experience and it helped me moving into the spring.”

This spring, working on a daily basis with assistant coach Joe Gargione has proven to be a big help for Birnie.

“It was nice to have a pole vault coach who knows what pole vaulters need every day of the week so he could tell me what drills I should do on a daily basis, what lift I could do to specifically train for the pole vault and stuff like that,” said Birnie.

“He was a pole vaulter himself so he understood exactly what I needed to do.”

Doing video analysis with Gargione has given Birnie a better idea of what he needs to do technically.

“The pole vault is such a fast thing and there are so many parts of the techniques to be able to analyze everything I was doing,” added Birnie.

“We had to take slow motion videos of my jumps and we would go through them frame by frame and pick out exactly what I had to fix to get better; it helped a lot to be able to see yourself jump.”

Birnie jumped into title contention at the big meets down the stretch of the 2016 campaign, taking second in the county meet (13’6) and fourth in the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional (13’0) before taking first at the state Group 4 meet (13’0) to book his spot at the Meet of Champions (MOC).

An injury suffered in
training last week, though, nearly derailed Birnie’s MOC appearance. “I was trying to get on to different poles and work on some things that I could do better at Meet of Champs,” said Birnie.

“It was the last practice before the meet. It was just the second jump of my practice and I went up and I came right back down on a part of the mat that was really thin and worn away. I landed right on my right glute. It hurt really, really bad. I could hardly walk the rest of the day. I was icing it almost constantly for the next couple of days coming up to Meet of Champs. I have never had to do anything like that.”

Although the rest and icing provided some relief, Birnie wasn’t sure what he could do once he got to the track at Central Regional High in Bayville.

“Even on the bus, I was still in pain, it would kind of hurt when I ran around,” said Birnie.

“I knew it was the last meet of the season and it was the Meet of Champs and even if it did hurt a little bit, it didn’t really matter. I just had to jump anyway. I told my coach, pain is a decision and I was vaulting. I think the adrenaline and ibuprofen helped me get through. Even warming up at Meet of Champs, it hurt to do the sprints. Once I started to get in line to vault, the adrenaline really kicked in.”

Riding that adrenaline, Birnie enjoyed a career day, clearing a personal record 14’0 and taking fourth in the competition. In addition to Birnie’s heroics, PHS junior Alex Roth and sophomore Will Hare placed 14th and 18th in the 3200, respectively, at the MOC while senior Theodore Tel was 25th in the long jump and freshman Paul Brennan was 18th in the discus. On the girls side, the 4×400 relay of  senior Maia Hauschild, senior Jordan Vine, sophomore Caren Ju, and sophomore Jackie Patterson finished 11th with a time of 3:57.74. Patterson, the anchor on that relay, also finished 15th in the 400.

In reflecting on his MOC performance, Birnie has trouble believing what he accomplished.  “I was vaulting really well that day, I got really lucky,” asserted Birnie.

“I was focusing in on the event to get away from the pain. The opening height was 13 feet that day; the last jump of the group meet was the first jump of this meet. I didn’t expect to clear it right away but I ended up clearing 13 on my first try and 13’6 on my first try and then 14 on my first try as well. I didn’t expect that at all — it was one of my better jumps. My 13’6 jump was a little messy but my 14’0 jump was clean. I didn’t touch the crossbar at all and it felt really good.”

For Birnie, taking up the pole vault has been a really good experience, on and off the track.

“I look to my team, my coaches and my family a lot; I couldn’t have done it without them,” said Birnie, who is headed to Rutgers University this fall where he will be studying in the school’s honors engineering program and hopes to walk on to the Scarlet Knights track team to continue his pole vaulting career.

“I think overall participating in the sport showed me a lot about persevering and getting over stuff.”