Underdog Athletes Vault Their Way to the Top
By Doug Marrin
In a story that echoes David and Goliath, four Dexter pole vaulters tell their story of going from a crushing disappointment to winning state titles.
For Cole Sheldon, Noah Schultz, and sisters Josie and Sophia Mettes, their victories at state competition were sweet triumphs, especially considering the turbulent past year.
On June 5, 2021, in the D1 state finals at East Kentwood, MI, Sophia took first place in the women’s competition with a jump of 12’ 6”. Cole took first in the men’s with 15' 3”. The Dreadnaughts owned both first-place spots and took both second-place medals as well. Josie took second in the women’s with a height of 12’ 3”, and Noah took second place in men’s with 14’9”.
While the competitive side of the story has only just happened, the emotional side to it began more than a year ago when the four youth would have to struggle with a leviathan we would all come to know—the emotional toll of pandemic restrictions.
Goliath won the first round in March 2020. The Dreadnaught pole vault team had just completed a phenomenal indoor season. Four members were headed to the national competition in New York— sisters Josie and Sophia Mettes and brothers Henry and Cole Sheldon. On the morning they were to leave, Governor Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Executive Order was issued, effectively cancelling life as we knew it. For the pole vaulters, not only were nationals cancelled but also the coming outdoor season. As we all can relate, a significant part of their life was suddenly gone, sucked into the black hole of COVID.
Josie told the Sun Times News at the time, “I woke up at three o’clock in the morning to get ready to leave for nationals. I was walking into Sophia’s room to wake her up when my mom called upstairs telling us Nationals is cancelled. Honestly, I was in disbelief and thought she was joking.”
“We were obviously all devastated,” Josie’s mother, Wendy Strott, told the STN back then.
In-person school was soon cancelled, and the summer of isolation ensued. Pole vaulter Henry Sheldon moved on to college, missing indoor nationals and his senior year of competition. For the vaulters who remained, this past school year could be summed up in one word … weird.
“We had to divide our track team into these separate pods for distancing because of COVID,” explains Noah. “It was really weird not seeing everyone face to face.”
Cole concurred. “It’s definitely weird not going to school and not seeing your friends. So when the option to go back to in-person school for four days a week came, I took it because I wanted to see my teachers and friends.”
Sophia found the disruption to her routine challenging. The removal of team activities made it difficult for her to find the motivation to continue her training.
“When we were fully online with no after-school activities or sports, with just academics, it was a little hard to stay focused and concentrate on working out and staying in shape,” she explains. “Having a routine gets me going through every day and makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, like I’m productive.”
In good David and Goliath stories (where the David character wins), the underdog pushes back against their fears and emotions. It's not that the four pole vaulters were somehow immune to the stress the pandemic restrictions created, but they kept moving anyway.
The teen’s slogged through fall, and as the winter indoor season approached, the pole vaulters were able to hone their abilities at Lincoln High School’s new indoor track facility. Noah was vaulting well and achieved a new PR (Personal Record). Despite his success, however, the threat of having it taken away loomed like a dark cloud.
“We had to start doing weekly COVID tests,” he explains. “And there’s always that fear that if any of my tests, or my teammates' tests, come back positive, we would have to miss out on two whole weeks of our season in quarantine.”
Sophia also dealt with the gnawing fear of another canceled season. However, getting back on the track with pole in hand help allay any lingering concerns. She was training well and ready to go. Cole, a junior, also felt some pressure with the upcoming outdoor season. He wanted to have a good showing for colleges to see. He felt this was his only chance since there was no 2020 season for recruiters to consider.
Coach Geoff Gerstner is somewhat of a legend in the pole-vaulting world. His athletes are regulars at state competitions every year. But even in all his experience, he has never faced conditions like the pandemic restrictions. Strictly following the safety protocols in place prevented his team from training as they usually would.
“I basically came into this season thinking that this is about as bad as it can be,” he says. “I figured it was going to be a pretty rough season, but then the exact opposite happened.”
Josie was the outlier of the group. She had not been as involved with training as she felt she should have. In addition, Josie was recovering from a sprained ankle. “I’m just going to see if I can make it through the season,” she remembers thinking. But on a warm day in Lincoln, she set two PRs and broke the Dreadnaught record for women’s pole vault at 12’ 8”.
Winter turned into spring. And along with the bulbed flowers poking through the frozen ground, hope also blossomed for the athletes when they saw that the outdoor season would occur. They triumphed at state, going in a year from the depths of disappointment to the acme of accomplishment. When asked to compare the two years, the pole vaulters didn’t lack words.
“It really would just have to be the excitement,” says Noah. “I was excited because I actually got to have my senior season, unlike so many seniors before me.”
Cole agrees that the excitement of this year eclipses the disappointment of last year. “I definitely think last year’s cancellation made this year even better,” he says.
“These years are complete opposites,” says Josie. “Last year, I was coming off a good year and looking forward to New York, and suddenly it was all taken away. I was so disappointed. This year I’ve broken a school record and place second in states. I’m in disbelief at the difference.”
“Last year, I was shattered,” says Sophia. “I was very sad at not getting to indoor nationals and not having an outdoor season. This year, I’m shocked not only at how I did but how the whole team did as well.” She agrees with Cole that last year’s disappointment made this year even better. “To have good times, you have to have the bad ones,” she says. “And the bad ones make the good ones even better.”
Coach Gerstner is even a little stumped at the wild turnaround of the pole vaulters’ season.
“I’d like to think that our great season was because the other teams were in the same boat,” he explains. “But looking at the measurements, we’ve never had kids go this high before, so that idea doesn’t play out. So I guess you have to attribute some of their abilities to who they are.”
When asked what they might tell their own children someday about the dark days of the pandemic and its emotional toll, Noah and Sophia are ready with a parental lesson.
“We got through it,” says Noah. “When they start complaining about needing a day off of school, I’m going to tell them, ‘You’d better enjoy school because I had months where I just could not see anybody.”
“I will probably tell them about all the uncertainty and struggles that everyone experienced throughout the pandemic,” says Sophia. “And I tell them that coming out of it was even better. Like I said earlier, tough times will make the good times even better.”
Next year, Noah is headed off to Indiana Tech, where he will continue pole vaulting. Josie will be attending U of M and considering whether to try out as a walk-on. Sophia and Cole will be seniors at Dexter and look forward to competing again.
Wendy describes the teams’ emotional journey this past year, saying, “My husband and I have always taught Josie and Sophia to take the hand you’ve been dealt and make it work for you. You have to adapt and push through it. (These pole vaulters) are mentally tough kids who have learned that life isn’t fair, but it doesn’t have to stop you from getting to where you want to go.”
A good thought to keep in mind when life is working against you.