Speed is a crucial physical element in pole vault. The faster the vaulter moves; the more energy is transferred into the pole to get them over the bar.
But the kind of speed Live Oak’s Clayton Simms is exhibiting is opening eyes on the Louisiana high school track scene.
Competing for only a little more than a year, the 16-year-old sophomore Simms is rising fast among prep vaulters, climaxed by his 15-feet, 8¼-inch effort that recently won him first place in the Louisiana High School Athletic Association Division I State Indoor Meet.
That effort has Simms at No. 22 in the nation among high school vaulters, according to Athletic.net rankings. A former competitive gymnast, Simms outgrew that sport but has nearly doubled his personal best vault since he first picked up a pole in February of 2018 and feels he’s found his calling.
“It’s way more than I thought would ever happen,” said Simms, who first tried cross country and then wrestling in his freshman year. “It’s become a real passion. It’s what I want to do all the time. I don’t know if I expected it to come this fast. When you really like it, it makes you want to work harder at it.”
Live Oak track coach Brett Baker remembers seeing an unfamiliar face flying down the pole vault runway and hitting the mark like an experienced vaulter.
“You could tell he was pretty good potential,” Baker said. “I called him over and said, ‘Dude, who are you?’”
Simms quickly began clearing eight feet with relative ease but before March ended, he had set a school record with an 11-6 vault at a meet at Brusly. Simms continued to improve, reaching 12 feet, although he did not qualify for state indoor or outdoor meets. His parents hired a private coach, Erica Fraley, who operates National Pole Vault Compound near Hammond.
By the end of the summer he was clearing 15 feet.
“He’s in love with it,” Baker said. “He goes home and watches videos of it when he’s not pole vaulting. He’s one of the best in the state right now. I work with sprinters and when I look over, Clayton is actually teaching the other kids. He’s dedicated to it.”
Simms’ winning jump beat his previous mark by 2¼ inches and bested his chief rival, Elijah Odinet of Lafayette High School, by 2 inches. Simms survived a small scare when he passed on heights up to 14 and then missed his first two tries before clearing the bar on his final turn.
While Simms is rising fast, his mark isn’t the best in the state or even in Livingston Parish. Catholic-New Iberia’s Nicholas Russell won the Division II meet with a 16-4¾ clearance and Maurepas’ Kameron Aime was second at 15-8½.
It was the five years of competitive gymnastics training that prepared Simms for the physical demands of pole vaulting. He said his best events were the vault and high bar which when put together made for a natural transition to the pole vault.
Gymnastics became unmanageable when Simms experienced a growth spurt, accompanied by growing pains in his knees in the summer after eighth grade. He’s now close to six feet tall and weighs about 145 pounds. At times, his feet would drag on the mat when doing a high bar routine and he was the tallest athlete in his group.
“I was not really brokenhearted,” he said. “It was a good time to leave.”
Simms’ mother, Laure (sic) said his gymnastics coach recommended pole vaulting as an alternative sport.
“I was all for it,” she said. “With his gymnastics background he has good air awareness and body control, so that’s a big help. It wasn’t scary to me. Because he was a gymnast for so long it wasn’t uncommon for me to see him flying through the air.”
Simms is hoping to crack 16 feet soon and it could come in two weeks when he competes in the New Balance Indoor Nationals in New York City March 8-10.
In the offseason Simms works with Fraley in two-hour sessions an average of twice a week. Fraley, who competed for Texas A&M and was a member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, thinks Simms can go a long way.
“He’s picked this up and run with it, had a lot of success in a short amount of time,” Fraley said. “He’s an athlete with the right capabilities. He will continue to improve as he perfects some of the details of it. He’s got the right athletic body for it and the right mentality. His potential is anywhere from 17 feet
to as far as he wants to go and as far as his body will let him go. It’s a hard thing to know.
“In the summer program, it really clicked with things we were working on and how to improve,” Fraley said. “He came with a great awareness of what his body was doing. At that age, you never know how much they can control the link between brain and body. With his gymnastics background, that was really honed in. It made it easy to apply the strength and power he had into the pole vault. He’s got a drive in him.”