<
>

AN INTERVIEW WITH JENN STUCZYNSKI

8/23/2008
Getty Images

Jenn Stuczynski wants to set the record straight.

The American silver medalist in the pole vault is not a trash talker, as the Russians seem to believe. She's not a bullied victim of an abusive coach, as a legion of Internet fans seem to believe. She's more than happy with her performance.

But Stuczynski is upset that the joy of her medal, won just four years after she first started training for the event, has been swallowed by controversy.

In an emotional interview Friday, the 26-year-old from Fredonia, N.Y., told how words and images taken out of context in the coverage of her duel with gold medalist Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia made the days after Monday's event miserable.

"I was so depressed," Stuczynski said. "It was awful. It's so hard," she continued, fighting back tears without much success. "You work so hard, and people take it away."

The first controversy erupted over a quote Stuczynski gave during a press conference after she won the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene in July. Asked how she thought the team would do in the Games, Stuczynski said, "I hope we do some damage, and, you know, kick some Russian butt."

It was a rah-rah quote that was mostly forgotten after she said it. "It was me and my teammates, in an emotional moment," Stuczynski said, noting that Russia has five of the top vaulters in the world, and finished 1-3-4 in Beijing. "It was a pep rally, one of those things that was, 'Come on let's go. We're not going to go over there, roll over and die. We want to fight.' "

Stuczynski never meant it as a putdown. "It wasn't intended to be malicious," she said. "It would be pretty stupid of me to come out and say before my first Olympics that, you know what, I'm gonna beat the world record holder."

But the Russian media seized on the quote as a personal insult to Isinbayeva, one of the most popular female athletes in the world who has dominated the event. Much of the rest of the press ran with the story line after Isinbayeva won convincingly, setting a new world record with a jump of 16 feet, 6 3/4 inches.

"I guess in translation it's gotten messed up, and it becomes personal and I'm attacking her and I'm a trash talker," Stuczynski said. "And that's the part that's hurts because that's not it at all."

Isinbayeva helped the narrative at her post-victory press conference. She said Stuczynski's remark motivated her, adding, "She must respect me and know her position. Now she knows it."

Stuczynski couldn't answer her in the press conference, because she had to go through doping control.

That media tempest was a mere squall before what was to come. On the NBC telecast, on tape delay some 12 hours later, the network miked Stuczynski's coach, Rick Suhr, who discovered her on a basketball court four years ago and convinced her to try the pole vault. In the time since, training her and several other athletes in a makeshift facility in Churchville, N.Y., he's coached her to an American record and silver medals in world championships and now the Olympics.

After Stuczynski missed her final attempt at 4.90 meters, the camera followed her to Suhr's spot in the stands. NBC captured the following remarks from a surly sounding Suhr, who was talking to her while text-messaging:

"(It's) the same old same old. You're losing take-off at the big heights. What are you gonna do. You gotta learn to keep take-off. You got‹you got caught at that meat grinder. I did not—and I told 10 people—I did not want to be caught in a meat grinder between 65 and 80. You had to, though.

You weren't on, you know, your warm-up didn't go well, you were 55, you got caught up in that meat grinder. What are you gonna do. What are you gonna do. You didn't have the legs. Her legs are fresh. Hey, it's a silver medal.
Not bad for someone who's been pole vaulting for four years."

As Stuczynski turned around, she had a hollow, downcast look, as if she'd been upbraided.

Back in America, people watched. People cringed. And then people sent angry, sometimes ugly e-mails to Suhr's web site. Or they chimed in on Internet message boards, urging Stuczynski to fire "that jerk of a coach." A lot of people. But Stuczynski says people got it all wrong. Terribly wrong.

What they didn't see, she said, was what prompted Suhr's monologue. "I went over and I asked, What did I do wrong?" Stuczynski said. "And he said what he said, and it's the truth. And I didn't have a mike, and they didn't hear it and they didn't play it."

Moreover, she says, Suhr was texting his 13-year-old son in the States to inform him of the silver medal.

So what about the cold "meat-grinder" remarks? "When I started the meet, I was off, so I had to come in earlier, so I could get in a rhythm," she says.

Those early jumps came in a part of the meet where the most competitors are jumping from 4.70 to 4.85. "It's the part of the meet that takes the longest, and we call it the meat grinder because it wears you out because you have to jump so many times. Because I was off, I had to jump those heights to ensure a silver medal."

But what about her reaction? Stuczynski explained that she'd had problems on takeoff at her previous meet in London. She suspected she'd repeated the same mistakes, and when Suhr confirmed it, she says, "I was discouraged with myself. It bothered me that I didn't jump to my potential. It wasn't anything he said. But people took that, and all of a sudden he's a bad coach, and I need to find another coach."

And the downcast glare? "There were all these things on the ground that I didn't want to trip over," she says, including the railway for NBC's moving trackside camera.

Stuczynski says Suhr did only what she expects him to do. "What he said to me is nothing that made me sad," she says. "I'm a 26-year-old professional athlete. I ask him to be fair coach. I don't ask him to be a cheerleader. I want you to tell me when I jump good, and I want you to tell me when I jump badŠ I think a lot of people don't understand that this is my job. This is what I do for a living, and I have to be good at it, and I have to get better at it. And we celebrated it. But at that moment, I wanted to know why I didn't make that bar."

When the Internet storm erupted, Stuczynski felt powerless, and a little hopeless. She says Suhr has received countless angry emails from people who think they're protecting her. Meanwhile, her family and her coach's family have heard comments about whether the coach went too far, and wondering why Stuczynski is putting up with a guy who couldn't even say congratulations.

But she, her coach and her parents went out to dinner after the competition and celebrated. "And people don't hear the things he says leading up to the meet, or the texts he sent me all week saying, We can do this, you know? That's what's so frustrating."

Stuczynski, who gave the interview at the Beijing airport as she readied to travel to her next meet in Zurich, admitted the days after the medal were some dark ones.

"After this all came out I just wanted to go home," she says. "But you can't let outside stuff affect you. They say you have to have tough skin, it comes with the business, so I guess you have to take the punches."

She's always enjoyed the media, she says, but this will take some time to sort out. "It reminds me of reality TV," she says. "The clip wasn't cut, but you only see parts of it—you don't understand the whole thing. And it's like how can you fix it? How can you make people see the truth?"