By Michael Bower
Each school year Tom Martin has his freshman physical education classes line up in front of the pole vault pit at Rancho Bernardo High School.
He places a table in front of the landing pad and instructs the first student to step on up.
Martin holds the long, flexible pole in front of the youngster — never letting it go.
The student grabs the pole, takes one step and jumps. After a brief flight, he or she lands safely on the mat.
This is when Martin pays close attention.
“At that point,” he says, “the kid knows if pole vaulting is something they want to do or not. I just wait for their reaction.”
And, for the most part, that is the yearly recruiting process Martin has
followed for 22 — going on 23 — seasons as the Broncos’ pole vault coach.
And he has groomed many of the finest vaulters in the state, taking some from one step off a table to heights never before imagined.
“I think his biggest turnout one year was 70 kids coming out just for vaulting,” said longtime Broncos track and field coach Don Jones, who has coached alongside Martin a combined 30-plus years at Monte Vista, Poway and now Rancho Bernardo. “It is so fun watching kids literally go from nothing to knowing how to vault by the end of the season.”
Martin, 55, recently was named the National High School Pole Vault Coach of the Year by USA Track and Field. The award caught him off guard, as it was given to him at the annual Pole Vault Summit in Reno, Nev., in mid January.
“I knew I was going to be a guest speaker to a group of high school and college coaches, but when they made the announcement about the award in front of some 2,000 people I was totally shocked,” said Martin, who successfully battled throat cancer two years ago. “I was walking up past these national coaches and they were making comments like, ‘it is about time. You deserve it.’ It was just an amazing weekend.
“I have always worked really hard and I have put so much time into this. I think more than anything the pure recognition was phenomenal. It felt so good to know that people respect what we do here and what I have done.”
What he has done is develop Rancho Bernardo into the premier pole vaulting program in the San Diego Section.
Martin has taken at least one vaulter to the state meet for 15 years in a row. He has coached three state champions — all girls — and has watched 15 different boys in his program soar over 15 feet in the last 15 years. He has also had 16 girls go over 11 feet in the last 15 years.
“I think I just want to be the best,” Martin said when asked about where his drive stems from. “I am very much a perfectionist so if I am doing something I want to be the best at it.”
Perhaps the most amazing vaulter Martin has trained is Tracey O’Hara.
O’Hara was a Level-10 gymnast and had not given pole vaulting a shot until her senior year in 1998.
She ended up setting a state record and winning the state title that season. She earned a scholarship to UCLA and went on to win three NCAA championships.
“Martin is the type of coach that doesn’t mess around,” O’Hara said. “He does his research and goes to clinics. He tries to better himself and learn everything he could about the sport and pass it on to us.
“(Martin) helped me to not have any fears,” she added. “As an athlete, you want to be all-in with your coach and believe in him and trust him and know that he won’t make a bad decision for you. I trusted him completely. I knew he wasn’t going to steer me wrong.”
O’Hara is just one of several gymnasts who went on to be successful pole vaulters under the tutelage of Martin.
Kathleen Donoghue (1999 RB grad) and Natalie Dennison (1999 RB grad) also had successful careers at Rancho Bernardo. Donoghue won the state title in 1999.
But, if it was up to Martin, he would have many more gymnasts trying out for the team each year.
“I am surprised I don’t get more gymnasts to come out, because every year I want the gymnasts,” Martin said. “It doesn’t guarantee success, but it puts them ahead of the curve. I tell gymnasts that, believe it or not, you have been training to be a pole vaulter and didn’t know it.
“My downfall might be that once a girl tells me she wants to do gymnastics I just leave them alone. I respect their decision. A lot of coaches would push them. I don’t.”
Gymnast or not, Martin has helped turn hundreds of first-time vaulters into a success over his 30 years of coaching.
And it seems as if there will be hundreds more down the line that will get the opportunity to pick his brain.
“It is getting a little harder every year to put in all the hours that I put in,” he said, “but there is no immediate plans to quit anytime soon.”
That means you eighth-graders headed to Rancho Bernardo next year could start preparing for a brief flight — one that could eventually bring you to heights you never thought were possible.