June 8, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - Try to find another 165-pound guy who's been bigger this spring than Scott Roth.
The Huskies' soaring senior won the NCAA outdoor championship Wednesday night by pole vaulting through a nasty crosswind in Iowa.
"It was super fun," he said from the national finals in Des Moines minutes after taking the third national title of his Huskies career.
He had already won his second consecutive NCAA national indoor championship in the pole vault this year while overcoming a month of inactivity from a hamstring injury. He has set the UW record by clearing the highest pole-vault mark in America - and fourth-best in the world -- this spring.
He has become an All-American for the seventh time in his Washington career. Next, he will compete in this month's U.S Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore., with a realistic shot at becoming the first Husky to qualify for the World Championships since fellow pole vaulter Brad Walker in 2007. That would set him up toward the London Olympics next year.
He has graduated with a degree in biology. Heck, Roth has even coached this spring. While UW vault and jumps coach Pat Licari was back home last month to be at his wife's side in a hospital, Roth's astute advice in Eugene helped sophomore Logan Miller join him in qualifying for these NCAA outdoor track and field championships.
It was the eighth national championship he has qualified for in eight chances at Washington. Few, if any, in college track and field have gone a perfect 8-for-8 in NCAA finals recently.
How good is Roth? Not even the howling spring winds of America's Heartland could shake him. He was the only one in the field of 24 to pass on all of the first three heights Wednesday. He only needed to clear two bars to win, and his winning mark of 17 feet, 8½ inches was a foot shorter than the Huskies record he set two months ago. "Basically, I was just trying to stay mentally tough and to be able to deal with the changing conditions and the wind," Roth said. "In the past I've had difficulty with that, but I've prepared myself for that. I think (this) showed how much my preparation paid off."
The only question with Roth entering the summer is: What will he soar to next?
"Everything is just lining up for me this year," Roth told me last week inside UW's Dempsey indoor facility before yet another training session with Licari.
No kidding. Ever since he cleared 18 feet, 9¼ inches at the Mt. SAC Relays in mid-April - routing a field of pros and besting the 8-year-old record of Walker, a former American record holder, by almost 3 inches - Roth has entered rarified air among pole vaulters.
I asked him how realistic it is that he will follow Walker and Aretha Thurmond (Hill) from 2008 as a Husky track Olympian by representing the U.S. in 2012 in London.
He looked at me as if I had asked him whether he could vault over a shoe box.
"It's pretty realistic," he deadpanned. "I've still got the No. 1 ranking in the U.S."
STRIVING FOR 19
There is something else besides his many accomplishments at Washington that sets Roth apart from the average track-and-field athlete. That is, besides the fact his father Curt Roth, former record-setting pole vaulter at Sacramento State, installed a vault runway and pit in the family's backyard in Granite Bay, Calif., so his son could begin the sport at age 11. Or the fact Scott is one of the few Huskies on a full track scholarship (the men's program, which has 61 athletes on its roster, only gets 12.6 scholarships per year).
Roth isn't focused on records. He isn't focused on what titles he's won, or the meets for which he may be qualifying. He says he's not even eying the ultimate one that has a five-ring flag and a flame flying over it every four years.
Nope, he is focused solely on the bar. Specifically, on clearing it when it's set at 19 feet.
"I'm a little different when it comes to that, setting goals, The goals I usually set are usually bars," Roth said. "When I first got here my freshman year I wanted to clear 18 feet. And I did (as the nation's top-ranked freshman that year).
"This year, my goal is to clear the 19-foot bar."
In amateur pole vaulting, 19 is nirvana. It is the plateau upon which vaulters have realistic chances at the Olympics, and at eventual shoe-company endorsements that allow one to make a living from catapulting upside down off a stick.
"Once you start reaching 19 feet, or 5.8 meters in international terms, you are now in the next level," assistant coach Licari said. "It's been fun this spring watching him go for that. The bar goes up in big, important meets, and Scott just rises with it. He's just a great competitor, a great pole vaulter."
Roth arrived in at Drake University and the NCAA finals this week oh-so-close to besting 19. The wondrous day he set the UW record at those Mt. SAC Relays, he took multiple shots at 19 feet. On his second attempt at 19 there, he was over the bar and people began celebrating - before it wobbled and cruelly fell.
He has attempted 19 feet two other times, once this year and once as a junior. He will likely need to try it again June 23-26 back at the University of Oregon during the U.S. Championships. The top three finishers there qualify for Worlds, which begin Aug. 27 in Korea.
Roth sees all that potentially lies ahead for him beyond these NCAA championships. Yet he's just happy - humbled, really - to have gone from a former baseball and soccer player at age 14 to one of the best pole vaulters Washington has ever had.
"It's really cool to know I have left a mark here, I guess," he said, somewhat bashfully. "To be honest, I just feel pretty honored to have competed for U-Dub."
Roth has enjoyed his time in Seattle so much, the Californian is going to remain here for a couple of years. And he's enjoyed learning from Licari so much, he is going to have him remain his coach as Roth begins a professional pole-vaulting career.
"I don't want to leave. My plan is to train here. Can't get enough of this place, I guess," Roth said, with a smile and a shrug.
Roth was a skinny kid in a an underdeveloped body when he arrived at UW from high school in 2007. And he was a consistent 17-foot vaulter.
"I guess it would be a stretch to predict in four years he'd be at 18-9 or even 19 feet," Licari said. "You see guys like him in high school, 17-foot guys, you just don't see them improve that much so soon."
How's Roth done it?
First, he matured into a sort of gymnast in the infield, developing a strong upper-body and legs. Then there's his speed, that of a turf-burning wide receiver.
"I've got decent tail speed," he said. "I do normal sprint work in practice all the time, like a sprinter would."
When he is at his best, he runs 9½ meters per second down the pole vault runway, which is approximately 130 feet long.
That's 21.3 miles per hour. Try sprinting that around campus or Green Lake sometime.
Roth is so fast that he dabbled on the 4x100-meter relay team at the end of his junior year at UW.
He is also a student of the craft. He studies the geometry of optimum pole angles in combination with the optimum plant point for his five-meter (about 16-foot) pole.
He rarely goes from his full runway approach in practice. He is too focused on technique, on planting and on making sure his last foot upon takeoff is extended onto his tippy toes with his arms fully extended. That's to maximize his angle of departure - a key for a 5-foot-10 vaulter who is sometimes five to seven inches shorter than his competitors.
NOW, ABOUT THAT `COACH ROTH' THING
Roth graduated after the recent winter quarter. He was lamenting to me how his grades would have been much higher if he hadn't been so devoted to pole vaulting, and if he hadn't tried to maintain some semblance of a social life while competing year-round at the top level of college athletics.
So I had to ask him, "Just what your GPA here at UW?"
"3.35," he replied, with a straight face.
He hopes to earn a graduate degree in education from Washington and then become a teacher. You know, of easy stuff . Like biology, math or physics.
Besides teaching, he may need to carve out some time for coaching for when his days of soaring are done.
At the NCAA preliminaries last month, Roth coached in competition for the first time. Licari had returned to Seattle from the meet in Eugene to be with his wife as she had heart surgery to clear a blood clot. That left Miller, the two-time Nevada state girls' high school champion pole vaulter from Reno, in the hands of Roth and some fellow UW vaulters on site.
"That was a fun little preview of what coaching will be like," Roth said. "Really, I was just there to help her make decisions to what poles to be on, where the standards should be, how she should adjust her marks according to the winds on each jump."
Roth was more nervous coaching Miller than if he was staring at a bar set at 19 feet. And Miller was already spooked, and had been since Licari told her the night before that he wouldn't be there.
Yes, it was quite a scene in the bleachers next to the pole vault pit at Oregon's Hayward Field that day.
"I have to say, I did feel quite a bit of pressure - unwanted pressure. I was not prepared to feel responsible as to whether this person made it to nationals or not," Roth admitted. "As soon as I sat down in the bleachers it hit me, like, `Wow! What I say here kind of matters!' It was kind of crazy."
Roth said he felt a part of Miller making the NCAA finals, and that "I got a little bit of excitement out of that.
"I could definitely feel the appeal of coaching," he said. "I could definitely see myself going down that route, staying involved in the vault. And coaching is kind of an obvious way to still be involved in it."
Not that anyone is chasing him away from pole vaulting just yet.
As his dominant night in windy Iowa proved Wednesday, Scott Roth is just getting warmed up.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.