At the end of the long narrow runway, Carena Nottoli takes a deep breath and lifts up her slim fiberglass pole, over 12—feet long, with hands placed wide apart at the bottom end of the pole as she steadies it in front of her.
At 5—feet tall, the pole is more than twice her height but she controls it with ease. Taking another breath, she launches into a controlled sprint, building up speed as she approaches her takeoff point.
In a few quick seconds, her hands come up as she lowers and plants the pole into the metal box at the end of the runway, simultaneously jumping up into the pole as it bends and swings up into the air as the pole recoils. She’s back down to earth, landing on the well-cushioned mat surrounding the pole vault pit within three seconds.
Nottoli’s jump isn’t perfect, but she’s made it off the ground – a goal she’s worked toward for the past week of practices. She knows she’s a good competitor, a fact she affirmed to herself once she committed to compete at Penn State at the Division I level, but has been having trouble with taking off on her jumps in recent weeks.
“Alright, that’s it Carena!” shouts Brie Berkowitz, one of Penn State’s assistant track and field coaches specializing in the long and triple jumps as well as the pole vault. Nottoli steps off the mat and the two review her jump, filmed by Berkowitz on an iPad.
Nottoli, a senior at Penn State studying kinesiology from Landisville, Pennsylvania, is one of three vaulters in the women’s pole vault program on Penn State’s track and field team. Combined with the men’s vaulters, the program is small with eight athletes competing in the event.
Despite its numbers, the women’s team is accomplished. Fifth-year athlete Katie Jones won the Big Ten Indoor Championships in 2020 and holds the university’s indoor season pole vault record with a jump of 4.25 meters. Hailey Zurich, a junior, has scored multiple times in the Big Ten championships and holds the school’s outdoor season record at 4.17 meters. Nottoli has also scored in the Big Ten several times.
However, the women’s team holds more in common than just its choice of collegiate alma mater. All three were former high-school athletes at VaultWorx, a private year-round pole vault club for high-school athletes located in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.
The club boasts a long list of high-school indoor and outdoor state champions and national level qualifiers, as well as dozens of high-achieving alumni, many of whom return on winter and summer breaks to help coach camps and practices or to continue practicing while their universities and colleges are out of session.
“Maybe there’s a string of people you can connect the dots to where we are now. There’s people who set the tone for our club,” Matt Concannon, founder of VaultWorx, said. “[Katie] made me want to be a better coach so I could coach her at a higher level. Those are all hard-working girls.”
Concannon founded VaultWorx in 2010 to supplement the coaching and practice local athletes received from their high schools. Currently, VaultWorx has over 100 athletes and a small staff of part-time coaches, although Concannon is the only one who coaches full-time.
The club’s current facilities feature three pits and runways for multiple practice sessions to use simultaneously and a large collection of poles at nearly every length and weight load. With the club’s continued expansion, VaultWorx will soon outgrow its current location, its rented warehouse space, and is looking to build its own new facilities in the near future.
In their high-school days, Jones and Zurich, from South Williamsport and Loyalsock Township, respectively, traveled two hours each way to practice at VaultWorx at least twice a week, often carpooling together.
“Kids will travel far, because they want to achieve something great,” Concannon said.
Private clubs like VaultWorx are few and far between in Pennsylvania, and athletes who are serious about pursuing careers in the sport likely won’t find the same caliber of coaching or resources at their local high schools.
The community that athletes step into at VaultWorx is another factor that continues to draw in new athletes and retain the ties with old ones.
Likened to the skateboarding community by Concannon for its thrill and niche appeal, the pole vault world is a small one where many athletes across schools and states know each other’s names and form relationships. Even with its high degree of competitiveness due to the smallness of the serious competition pool, Concannon describes the sports as always having a “family feel.”
This desire to stay with a program with the same “family feel” as VaultWorx is what ultimately influenced Nottoli’s choice to compete for Penn State as she joined the team a year after Jones. This desire also influenced Zurich to commit a year after Nottoli, joining her two former teammates in University Park
“The family at VaultWorx that we practiced with and had was exactly what I wanted,” Nottoli said. “I have pictures and videos on my phone from when we were, like, 16 and hanging out. Now I’m almost 22 and we’re still really close — we’re actually living together. It’s so cool how it comes full-circle.”
Photography by Lily LaRegina