SEATTLE — One of last times that Yours Truly saw University of Washington pole vaulter Chase Smith — other than at a Street Vault in Helena a couple years ago — he had established the MHSA all-class record of 16 feet, 4 inches at the 2015 State AA Track & Field Meet in Kalispell.
In a trip out to Seattle last weekend, I learned Smith is still soaring high. The UW senior captured the prestigious Husky Indoor Classic with a leap of 17-6½, before narrowly missing at 18½.
I attended the Husky Indoor Classic with dentists/photographers doctors John Smith and Joel Maes, and on our drive from the hotel to the Dempsey Indoor Center, Joel yelled, "Hey, there's Chase!"
I thought maybe he saw Chase walking on the sidewalk, but he pointed to a large Fathead-type poster of Smith on the light poles along the street.
When we got to the meet, I sat with Chase's parents, Pete and Barb, for a while, and his dad told a funny story about the time his son's image was displayed on a billboard on Seattle's Montlake Bridge.
Pete related how he texted a relative, "Hey, Chase is on the Montlake Bridge!" To which she responded, "What's he doing up on the bridge?" thinking he was up there in person and was going to jump.
Smith, who is an academic senior but an athletic junior, is redshirting this indoor season and was participating unattached last Friday, although he will be competing for the Huskies this upcoming outdoor season.
He has been the UW's top vaulter since his sophomore year, while owning a PR of 18-1. Smith was a second-team all-American in both 2017 and 2018, and Washington's first male vaulter to win back-to-back Mountain Pacific (MPSF) championships.
His career PRs range from being Montana's first-ever prep 16-foot pole vaulter with a 16-5 clearance at Missoula's 2015 Top 10 meet, to a height of 18-1 (so far) at the 2018 UW Indoor Open.
When I sat down with Smith in the Dempsey Center prior to last week's event, he reminisced about his high school and college mentors, his latest training routines and competitive philosophies, his teammate/girlfriend, and his future goals.
"High school was experimental, and (Bengals) coach Bill Hurford was not afraid to try anything," said Smith, who is studying pre-med, majoring in biology, with minors in chemistry and human rights. "My coach here the first three years at UW, Pat Licari, was similar, and my new coach this year, Toby Stevenson, has a different style — although they're both phenomenal. With Toby, I've been working on my speed and doing more weight training. And one of the biggest influences in my program is professor Mary Hebert."
Hebert is the director of the UW's Pharmacology Research Unit, and Smith describes her as "one of the smartest human beings I know."
Smith's girlfriend is fellow Huskies vaulter Annika Dayton, of Snowhomish, Washington, who owns a PR of 13-8.
"She comes from an athletic family, Annika and her dad are both Alpine climbers," Smith said. "When we practice or compete, we don't act like we're dating. But we're very supportive of each other."
Due to one of the Seattle area's worst snowstorms in many years, about a quarter of the teams scheduled for the Husky cancelled, limiting the competition to a one-day meet instead of two. But there were still more than 25 teams competing, including representatives of several of DIs premier track schools such as Oregon, Arkansas, Texas and Stanford.
When Smith entered the competition on Friday at 16-7, there was only one other athlete left in vault, the other entrants having already been eliminated. The 6-5 Helen alum missed his first attempt before clearing the bar handily.
Smith then made 17-6½ on his first try, which gave him the win over Tim Duckworth, a top-ranked decathlete, who is assistant coaching at the UW. Then came his three close attempts at 18-½, one-half inch below his PR.
His final attempt was using a 16-5, 5.10 pole, with a 13.8 flex, which he was using for the first time.
"I'd never been on that pole before, and we needed to move the standards closer. We guessed, and we just guessed wrong," Smith said.
It's a small world, but I wouldn't want to paint it
While we were having breakfast at the hotel the morning of the meet, there was a foursome of women tracksters from the University of Colorado at the next table.
Knowing that Bigfork's multiple Class B distance champion and state record holder Makena Morley competed for the Lady Buffaloes, Dr. Smith asked the table, "Is Makena Morley running today?" To which a young lady raised her hand, "That's me."
Morley went on to place third in the 5,000 meters several hours later.
At least two other Montanans performed that day. In the women's pole vault, Washington State's Katelyn Frost, of Corvallis, finished fourth, and Gonzaga's Jake Perrin of Flathead came in 43rd in the men's 5,000.
And Smith's UW vault teammate Blaise Black, has an uncle, Eddy Black, who lives in Helena.
One of the more memorable events was the men's mile run, which saw four guys break the 4-minute barrier, with No. 5 missing it by just two-hundredths of a second.
Among the pole vault stars coaching in the infield during the meet were Olympic champion Stacy Dragila, Olympic medalist Stevenson of Washington and Stacy Dragila, and Washington State's Brad Walker, the national record holder.
I had interviewed all three earlier in my career. In about 2005, I was introduced to Stephenson and Dragila by the late Doug LeBrun at a Reno vault summit, and I met Walker at Bill Hurford's Street Vault a couple years ago.
One of my career regrets was not getting a picture with Stacy in Reno, so last week I approached her in the Dempsey center, while she was directing a couple of her charges from her Boise club. I introduced myself, and when I reminded her that she gave me a nice quote after LeBrun passed away, she remembered me right away.
Next, I described being too "star struck" for a photo the first time. She just laughed and said, "Get over here."
After the meet, I spoke with Coach Stevenson, regarding his marquee protege's potential.
"I don't like the 'potential' question," he said. "Let's just say that Chase has all the tools to be really good, with his biggest asset being his mind. He pays attention, he's a hard worker, and he's able to compute what I'm saying.
"Chase had a great foundation under coach Licari, and he and I have been able to connect personally to come up with a great plan. One of the main things we're striving for is bigger, faster, stronger."
Smith said his final goal is "the same as almost everybody's, to make the Olympics." In order to qualify for the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, in June of 2020, he will need to vault 18-8.
As for his college highlight to date, he said it was the overall experience.
"I can't say it was one single event," Smith said. "Just being along for the ride with this group of vaulters has made the journey enjoyable, and helped adjusting to big city life more comfortable."