There probably was no way to prevent the pole vaulting accident last week that resulted in paralysis for South Lakes junior Matt Wagner.
Wagner was attempting to clear 10 feet in a dual meet at Herndon in preparation for this week's Great Falls District meet when his top hand slipped off the pole and he fell into the metal anchor box in which the pole is planted at the time of the jump.
Wagner broke his spine on impact and, according to Dr. Jeff Malka, an orthopedic surgeon who operated on Wagner, will be permanently paralyzed from the waist down.
Approximately half of the 150 high schools in the metropolitan area have pole vaulters. In the Interhigh League, only three of the 11 schools offer the competition because of a lack of proper facilities and equipment, as well as a lack of student interest.
Coaches nationally and around the area say spotters are essential safety precautions, but that even so, accidents such as the one involving Wagner sometimes cannot be prevented.
South Lakes track coach Garnett Million said there were at least three pole vault coaches and the vaulters from both teams standing in the vicinity when Wagner was injured.
"Usually, you have four spotters under normal conditions [at practice]. But since this was a dual meet, there were more than the usual number of people around," he said.
"But if I coach the next 20 years, a freak accident like this will never happen again. There's not a thing anyone could have done to prevent it."
A.K. Johnson, the track coach at T.C. Williams, said: "From the way it was described to me by him [Million], there wasn't much more anyone could have done. It sounds like the type of freak accident that wouldn't happen too often. He [Wagner] was a good vaulter and knew what he was doing. But even with spotters, if he went straight up and came straight down, no one could have stopped him from falling into the box.
"Now if the pole had broken, that's another problem. Usually, a kid will fall to the side or forward on the mats. We had something similar happen to our vaulter some time ago but he fell backwards on his shoulder and wasn't hurt. Even with spotters and coaches watching, it's still scary."
Mount Vernon Coach Ken Gaudreault said in most cases, when a vaulter breaks off his vault, he might come straight down and hurt his feet or ankles.
"Even off balance, kids would fall forward onto the mats," said Gaudreault, in his 14th year as track coach. "Most schools have the wide mats that extend farther out. [But] there's no way a mat would cover the box."
Gaudreault said he uses at least three spotters and a coach when his athletes practice vaulting.
"I think most coaches do everything they can to ensure their kids' safety in this event," he said. "We don't practice every day. We let the kids run with their poles and work on technique and, on other days, they work on conditioning with the other kids."
"Even with the spotters, it's scary," said Suitland Coach Fletcher James, a former track star at Eastern High School and Maryland. "I fooled around with the vault, and I can sense what happened to him [Wagner]. It didn't appear that anyone could have gotten under him in time. Most spotters are on the sides near the bar. We always check the pit and the poles. If you have the best equipment, the spotters and teach the kids the techniques, there isn't much else you can do safetywise."
Having the proper facility and best equipment are priorities for this event, according to all of the coaches and Tom Frederick, associate director of the National Federation Association of State High Schools. "Vaulting is an event that can be dangerous and all precautions must be taken," Frederick said.
According to Million, Fairfax County school safety inspectors looked at the Herndon facilities the day after Wagner's accident and found they met safety standards.
Oxon Hill Coach Bernard Burns said he doesn't have any vaulters because his school doesn't have the proper facilities. "Haven't had any vaulters in about 10 years now," Burns said. "We don't have the proper type of pit or the knowledgeable coaches to teach the techniques, and I wasn't going to take any chances getting anyone hurt. A number of schools in the area don't have pole vaulters for the same reason."
Interhigh Athletic Director Otto Jordan said he has ordered new vaulting equipment for a number of schools. But only three of 11 schools in the league have vaulting facilities.
"We don't have that many kids vaulting anyway. Those who are don't go much higher than nine feet," Jordan said. "Spingarn has the best facility, and that's the only place we have the event right now."
One District school that has had pole vaulting success is Ballou. "We know accidents can and will happen," said Knights Coach Carl Keels. "You can only teach the kids the correct technique and put the spotters out and hope for the best."
Even those schools with excellent pole vault coaching still worry.
"My assistant, Blair Buck, is a vaulter," Episcopal Coach Buzzy Male said. "He vaulted here in high school and at Yale. He still vaults sometimes and I'm very comfortable with him working with the kids. And anytime our kids vault, he's right there.
"But despite all the precautions, anytime an accident occurs, we have to stop and think. There must always be supervision. That is the key. Having the proper equipment and supervision is about all you can do."