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Stuczynski is meeting expectations she never had

7/11/2007

As recently as three years ago, Jenn Stuczynski had never propelled herself higher than 5'5'', which was good enough for the school high-jump record at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, N.Y. In May, the 25-year-old, now with pole in hand, vaulted 16 feet at the Reebok Grand Prix, breaking her own American record.

Before turning to the vault, Stuczynski was a gifted all-around athlete who set Roberts Wesleyan records in the javelin, 400-meter hurdles and basketball scoring. Still, she was initially reluctant to pick up a pole.

"I knew she could be great, even though she'd never tried vaulting," says her coach, Rick Suhr. "She thought I was crazy."


Suhr knew that Stuczynski's six-foot, 140-pound frame and persistent work ethic was a perfect combo for the event. But when Stuczynski first sprinted down the runway, in 2004, she was hobbled by mental obstacles. "I didn't get upside down for the first eight months," she says.

"I wasn't a gymnast like other vaulters, so I'd get confused about which way was up."

Once oriented, Stuczynski saw results quickly. She won her first national title at the 2005 indoors, despite being seeded near the bottom in a field of 20. She won her fourth at the outdoors in June, setting up a showdown at worlds in August with Russia's Olympic champ, Yelena Isinbayeva, a former gymnast who owns the world record of 16' 5''. Stuczynski is eager for the challenge. After all, at the Reebok meet, she barely nipped the bar on one attempt at a record 16'6''.

"Jenn's rise to the top is like finding a shark in a lake," Suhr says. "It just doesn't happen."

Except when it does. And that's how legends start.

Dimity McDowell is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine.