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Setting a high bar

The 2023-24 KU men's pole vault team is already one of the best in the country & it's gunning to be the best ever

6 min read
KU pole vaulter Ashton Barkdull skies to the bar at the indoor national meet in Boston earlier this season. [Kansas Athletics photo]

The high-performing athletes on the nation’s top-ranked men’s pole vault squad are on a mission to become the greatest group in their event in NCAA history.

There’s precedence for that at Kansas. 

 Pole vaulters at KU, including the record-breaking Zach Bradford, spent several consecutive weeks collectively ranked No. 1 in 2019, and the crew this season has followed suit, holding onto that top spot for multiple weeks in a row and currently sitting at No. 2 in the nation behind Virginia Tech.

Junior Clayton Simms, who just recently won the Kansas Relays, recalls having teammates his freshman year who experienced the epic 2019 run. 

He said he’s also seen “a lot of studs” in the track and field world coming out of high school become enamored with colleges because of the pretty facilities and nice gear.

Kansas has nice amenities, Simms noted, but some of what KU has is also modest. What the school continues to boast is competitiveness, and Simms said he liked the idea of going to a school where his teammates would be doing it at a level he wanted to reach. As a freshman, he remembers seeing a guy jump 19 feet in practice. That normalized greatness. 

“You learn to mimic the tendencies and just fit in and just kind of feel out what it takes to get to where you want to go,” he said. 

Be it this year or next, he said the pole vaulters at KU now have a shot at clearing the incredibly high bar set by the squad that came before them a few years ago. 

“I think we're en route to, you know, be the best squad ever,” Simms told R1S1 Sports after he cleared 5.68 meters to claim his first Indoor Big 12 Championship title in late February. 

Male and female members of KU's pole vault squad pose for a photo with the bronze Jayhawk & coach Tom Hays (far left) earlier this year. [Kansas Athletics photo]

His freshman year he frequently finished second or third, and he won meets as a sophomore, but a championship had remained elusive — until now, during a season that’s proving historic for Simms and his squad. 

“It is an individual sport,” he said. “Our individual stats all speak for themselves, but we also take the time to understand that we're trying to be, as a group, one of the best to ever do it.” 

Simms said his individual rankings don’t matter much to him so long as he’s atop the podium at the end of the day, but he mentioned that he and his teammates pay attention to the team event squad rankings. 

“It helps to have something to go for as a collective,” he said. “Because people get bogged down with like, ‘Oh, where am I where am I individually ranked?” or “Where can I get to?’ But when you have a group collectively trying to do something, it's easy to want to do your part as well as you possibly can because it's gonna help everybody else out anyway.” 

His fellow pole vaulters, the same guys who in practice and at meets help propel him to new heights, literally and figuratively, jumped around in enthusiastic celebration after his first-place finish at the conference championship. 

Simms, the fourth best pole vaulter in the nation, according to the the early March D1 rankings, recently qualified for the 2024 Indoor Nationals. So too did his teammate, sophomore Ashton Barkdull

Sitting beside Simms for the interview over Zoom, Barkdull mentioned that the men on the team are more than just “co-athletes”; they’re also friends. 

“It’s not like we just show up to practice and that’s the only time we see each other,” he said. “We’re hanging out on the weekends, going to get food together.” 

KU pole vaulters, from left to right, Luke Knipe, Ashton Barkdull, Anthony Meacham and Clayton Simms show off their Big 12 indoor medals. [Kansas Athletics photo]

Like good friends do, they also expect a lot out of each other. 

Barkdull said he can count on the other guys to hold him to a higher standard. If he comes into practice in the wrong frame of mind, the guys will remind him to be grateful that he is where he is and to work hard while he’s there. 

“We hold each other accountable,” Barkdull added, “and that's part of what makes the group so great.”

For his part, Barkdull helped the guys get off on the right foot indoors by setting a new personal best of 5.5 meters at the Bob Timmons Challenge season opener for KU.

Practices had been going well entering that meet, he said. Barkdull knew he was becoming a better jumper and improving his form, but he wouldn’t have been surprised if he jumped a respectable 16.00-.6 feet — just over five meters. But, as he began competing, he started feeling good.  

“I was moving poles, and then I wasn't even focusing on the bar heights,” Barkdull recalled. “I was just trying to focus on putting together clean jumps. And the bar just kept going up. I kept leaving it up there, and I was thrilled with the results of the day.” 

That performance set the tone for the season and prefigured the sort of success the Jayhawks would have indoors for weeks to come. 

At the Steve Miller Invite hosted by Kansas State in mid-February, Barkdull finished first and the KU crew swept the top six spots in his event. 

Kansas sophomore Anthony Meacham cleared the same height of 5.28 meters to secure a second-place finish. Prior to that, at the Iowa Black and Gold Invite in late January, Meacham managed to tie the previous meet record of 5.31 meters and finish second, this time behind Simms, who set the new meet record of 5.41 meters in his indoor season debut. 

“I was trying to give Clayton some competition — trying to push him to go higher because I knew he definitely could,” Meacham said. 

The friendly, if also fierce, intrasquad competition that encourages excellence at meets fuels practices as well. 

“It’s like we treat practice as a meet,” Meacham said. “We try to compete with each other (and) try to push (everyone) to do their best.” 

Simms said the eight KU pole vaulters — a relatively big squad for one team — compete in a “healthy” way when they practice. The team has two pits to use, and the athletes all try to reach the highest bar possible so they can jump in the main pit. The main pit jumpers are never the same for long, Simms explained, which is a testament to the caliber of competitiveness among them. 

When interviewed together shortly after Simms and Barkdull qualified for Nationals, and after Meacham came close clenching a spot to compete with the top-tier track and field athletes in the NCAA, the three men also attributed the dominance of KU’s pole vaulting to Associate Head Coach Tom Hays, the track and field team’s vertical jumps specialist. 

Simms suggested Hays “is like a wizard” when it comes to helping athletes prepare and get in the right mindset as well as peak physical condition.  

“It instills a lot of confidence in us,” he said about the way Hays works with athletes. 

Each meet, Simms said, is like a “reunion” of sorts, as he gets to see guys he’s competed against for years. 

“But at the same time, you say, ‘Hey,’ and everything, but then it's time to compete,” he said. “Again, you're gonna go out there and do your best and try to win.” 

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