Erin Silva ’15 has transformed years of honed gymnastic ability into consistent success in the pole vault event.

Last weekend at the New England Division III Indoor Championships, Silva vaulted for a new personal best of 3.75 meters—or 12.3 feet—raising the bar on the Bowdoin record she originally set as a first year and has broken many times since.

Currently ranked No. 7 nationally, Silva will likely qualify for nationals for the third year in a row. Maintaining her current rank would also earn her a second All-American distinction.

Silva began vaulting as a sophomore in high school—convinced by a friend and vaulter—when she grew too tall for gymnastics, a sport that she had been competing in since first grade. She also sprinted in that first year of competing, and her speed on the 100-foot runway eased her transition to vaulting. 

Her gymnastics background has helped her to gracefully execute the turn during the swing-up phase of the vault. During this phase, the vaulter quickly inverts her body before swinging over the bar.

Head Coach Peter Slovenski, a former vaulter himself, said that speed and grace are two of the most difficult things to teach, and the notion that they can be learned at all is up for debate. 

“Erin is very talented at all three phases of vaulting,” said Slovenski. “She’s one of the five fastest sprinters on our team. She has terrific jumping ability, and she has strong arms and gymnastic ability for the swing-up phase.”

The jumping phase involves converting forward momentum into upward momentum once the runner plants the pole in the metal box at the end of the runway. The fiberglass pole then bends dramatically to lift the vaulter up and forward, at which point she must execute the “swing-up” phase.

“Field event athletes have to be able to make adjustments in their technique, and this is a great strength of Erin’s,” Slovenski said. “There are a hundred things to coordinate, and she’s got a gift for coordinating all of them in the space of about three seconds.”

Silva said she made the decision to vault in college because she felt she had not yet hit her potential after only vaulting for three years.

“It’s been a long process,” she said. “It’s impossible to do a perfect vault, I would say. There’s always something you can do better.”

Silva’s success has been consistent since her arrival. Teammates expect her to win most of the meets she competes in, particularly the smaller regular season meets.

“I think she feels some pressure because, during some of the smaller meets or home meets, we kind of expect her to win and get her 10 points,” said captain Emily Clark ’15.

For reference, the Polar Bears scored 51 points in last week’s meet, so Silva’s second place finish—and the eight points it earned for the team—accounted for more than 15 percent of the team’s total.

Silva and the meet’s champion, Jenna Adams of Williams College, actually jumped the same height, but Silva lost the tiebreaker because she cleared the mark on her third attempt. Adams made the jump on her first attempt. Neither vaulter could clear 3.90 meters on their three given attempts.

Silva acknowledged that she feels more pressure when she attempts something she has already accomplished, and said she appreciates the constant challenge of improving her own performances, which is less stressful for her. She also said she felt motivated coming back from Spain, where she had been abroad for the fall semester.

Slovenski and vaulter Emily Lambdin ’16 said they noticed that Silva returned at a slight disadvantage having been away from vaulting, though Slovenski said she overcame it about six weeks into the season.

“At the beginning of the season, she was vaulting a lot lower than she usually does,” Lambdin said. “She jumped 11.1 [feet] a lot, which is still amazing, but low for her.”

To compare, the qualifying height for women at the NESCAC Championship meet is 7.6 feet.
Slovenski believes that about 13 feet—4 meters—is a realistic goal for Silva before she graduates. He noted that somewhere between 13 feet and 13.4 feet is usually good enough to win nationals.

“The pole vault is so complex that there are still things to improve, even for an All-American,” he said. “Erin does dozens of things at a high technical level, but there will always be more things to learn.”

The sports editor of the Orient chooses the Athlete of the Week based on exemplary performance.