SIDNEY – On a snowy Saturday this winter, Garrison Hughes and Steve Yokim were outside at Swanson Field on the track. Like most gyms across the state, it was hosting a basketball tournament. So Hughes and his coach brought the equipment outside and cleared some snow off the track to work on pole vault.
“He’s that driven to get better at it,” Yokim said.
“He’s kind of a natural athlete, but he works harder than anybody I’ve ever seen at it.’
That focus has paid off this winter for the Sidney junior as he has competed around the country, placed seventh at New Balance Indoor Nationals against the top 15 high school vaulters in the country and bettered his own bests four times. He also became just the second Montana high-schooler ever to go over 16 feet in the pole vault.
As the defending Class A champion, Hughes won last season with a mark of 15-0 at the state meet, but he’s set his sights higher this season.
“Main goal is 16-5 for the year because if I jump that at state, that’d be an all-state record,” Hughes said. “I’d like to have the state record. That’s the main goal for either this year or the next is just to get the state record and then after that, whatever heights kind of come along."
What has he done this season to improve so dramatically?
“I actually put a training plan together this year,” Hughes said. “This year I decided I actually needed to start lifting and I took a weights class first semester and then I came in after school and did a lot of work and tried to get into any indoor practice I could so all the lifting I did I felt really paid off. And then I got to competition and could start jumping on bigger and longer poles right away.”
Yokim has coached pole vaulters at Sidney High School for the past 22 seasons and says Hughes’ drive to work is different from anyone else he has coached.
“It’s a hard thing to be a pole vaulter in Montana because you just fight distance and weather and everything else and lack of facilities,” Yokim said.
To get any jumping done in the winter, Yokim and Hughes and up to five or six other vaulters will drive almost an hour across the North Dakota border to Williston once every couple of weeks where there’s an indoor track at the Williston Area Rec Center.
After paying their usage fees, the group pulls the equipment out and sets up the pole vault pit, jumps for a few hours, then has to put everything away before driving back home.
Now that the outdoor season has begun, Hughes and his teammates are trying to capitalize on any nice spring days they get.
Hughes said he is driven by the desire to have fun. "I know if I don’t do well, I won’t have fun, and most important to me is having fun with it first and if you can have fun with it, you’ll do well," he said.
The grass is still dry and crunchy on the field where Hughes also plays wide receiver and safety during the fall for the Eagles football team. Metal bleachers line both sides of the field, and both the high school and middle school track teams share the space for practice on a sunny afternoon.
Wearing a green shirt, black shorts, and the fluorescent yellow and pink Nike spikes seen at the Olympics last summer, Hughes is in a state of perpetual motion. Whether it’s bouncing on the back of the runway, adjusting the song playing on the Bluetooth speaker or shifting from side to side, Hughes always seems to be tinkering or adjusting something.
Sidney and Yokim have had multiple state champions in the pole vault, including 2008 Olympian Leila Ben Youssef, but Hughes’ success is presenting a whole other set of challenges for the veteran coach, who admits he is re-evaluating his methods as well as trying to find creative equipment solutions to enable Hughes to keep going higher.
“I’ve always thought that all I really do as a coach is provide opportunity for kids,” Yokim said. “All the drive, determination, the desire — that comes from them, and I think we’ve just been lucky that we have kids that want to do it.”
Hughes began vaulting in junior high. His cousins encouraged him to try, and Yokim noticed his natural athleticism.
Hughes credits losing his last meet of seventh grade to two rivals he had previously won against as giving him drive to improve over the summer.
“He would take the pole home during that one year in the summer and he would set up a runway on the street with tape and work on his run and he did that every day for the whole summer,” Yokim said.
Hughes improved his personal best over 2 feet in that year and has not looked back since. He still competes in other events to work on points for the team (this season it will be high jump, hurdles and the 1600 meter relay), but his passion is pole vault.
“As long as you see a bar still sitting there and you fall and you watch it get farther away, that’s really fun to watch so that’s my favorite part of the jump,” Hughes said. “It just feels like you’re floating for a couple seconds. It’s nice.”