HELENA — Former Helena High pole vault state champion Chase Smith returned to his hometown recently, assisting longtime Bengals’ pole vault coach Bill Hurford with annual summer camp. Smith, who owns Montana’s all-class state record at 16 feet, 4 inches, currently vaults for the University of Washington.
Smith has twice captured NCAA all-American efforts, earning second-team honors in each of the last two indoor seasons. He has won two straight Mountain Pacific Sports Federation titles, clearing 17-04 1/2 at the meet in February.
Smith owns a personal-best clearance of 18-01, set at the UW Open in February. He missed the outdoor season due to a meniscus tear, for which he had surgery last Monday.
MTN Sports caught up with Smith at Hurford’s camp, reminiscing about his days at Helena High, overcoming injuries and chasing the ultimate dream of an NCAA pole vault national championship.
MTN Sports: How often were you out here at (Hurford’s) camp, being one of these small kids and watching the older guys like these kids are doing with you?
Smith: “I definitely remember those days before he moved out here, we were over at his brother’s house vaulting. I would come out and do the camps, see the guys jump high. To be on the other end of that, it makes me feel good that I put the work in and it came to fruition. He always tells stories, he’s trying to get other kids to be motivated, he tells the kids, ‘Yeah, Chase lived down the street and would be out here doing drills when I would get home.’ I told the kids (Friday), ‘You can’t coach motivation. You have to motivate yourself in order to get better.'”
MTN Sports: Besides that, what’s the biggest piece you can offer these guys — whether a technical standpoint or the motivation of saying, “Reps are going to get you there?”
Smith: “That’s kind of a tricky question. Pole vault is a complex sport, as you can imagine, so sometimes kids will need that little bit of advice, ‘Next time just start on a different pole,’ and it totally changes their entire way of pole vaulting. Sometimes some kids just need the support. There’s a kid over here that always asks, ‘Hey, what can I do to help?’ I know one day he’ll be a really good vaulter because he has the drive for it. He fell in love with the sport at an early age, and with all sports, you have to fall in love with the sport in order to really enjoy doing it.”
MTN Sports: Tell us about the ups and downs of college, maybe starting with, for those who haven’t been following, when you first got out there, and then the ups and downs of this year.
Smith: “As for training, it just got harder. Bill (Hurford) did his best to whip me into shape before I went off to college. I didn’t have too much trouble, I’ve definitely seen people have a lot more trouble with our fall training at the University of Washington. I think the biggest thing was honestly balancing how much school we have and how much time we train. We probably spend three times the amount in Dempsey Indoor training that we do in class. It’s not like high school where you’re in class from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., you go to class a couple hours a day and get six hours of homework. I think that was the biggest change was being able to balance the amount of work I had to do to stay on top of my grades, rather than being athletically fit enough to compete with the team.”
MTN Sports: Was it eye-opening that first year, as far as the pole vaulting? Seeing the other competition after you were literally on top of Montana’s record books?
Smith: “Out here is its own little world. Jumping 16 feet out here, the whole state goes nuts. On a bigger scale, that’s fairly average for the country as a whole. Getting out of our little Montana bubble and going to a big school like the University of Washington, it really opens your eyes on how much better you can get, because you physically see it. I remember my freshman year, one of my training partners, he actually won the NCAA Indoor National Championships. That was huge motivation to get back on part so the next year I did make indoors. Now I’m trying to set a good example for the younger kids on my college team. We’re going to college to go to school, but you also can’t treat pole vaulting like a job or you won’t have fun.”
MTN Sports: Is that the biggest stage or most fun stage that you’ve been at in that second year?
Smith: “I think the most fun year I had was my sophomore year of college, just because I was setting personal records quite a bit, I was happy with my teammates, I had good teammates, had a good relationship with my coach and school was still easy, to a point. My sophomore year, it kind of sucked in the outdoor season, getting an appendectomy, but it’s one of those things you can’t control. You just have to take it with a grain of salt and move on, it doesn’t help if you dwell on the past.”
MTN Sports: What about the injury? We told (viewers) about the injury and that’s why they weren’t seeing your results at meets, but explain what happened and you obviously have the surgery coming up, so what are you looking at before you get back out there?
Smith: “It’s one of those things that if you took an X-ray of every other guy on the team, you would probably find five torn meniscuses. It just comes to the point where, if it flips up, it kind of hurts. Since pole vault is a very linear sport, it was something you didn’t really have to worry about. My surgeon said that, ‘If you were just an average guy getting up and going to work for Microsoft, you wouldn’t have to touch it. But since you compete at a Division I level, at high intensity, we need to address it.’ Finally I succumbed to his will and said, ‘Yeah, you fix it. It’s better to fix it and not just leave it.’ I ended up redshirting my outdoor season and getting it back in the spring of 2020, so hopefully by then I’ll be at the Olympic Trials. You never know.”
MTN Sports: It’s not just pole vault, talk about the school side of things and this being the toughest year. Talk about some of those things you’re studying and why it’s been so tough. Those aren’t my mass communications classes, this is some serious stuff.
Smith: “I’m majoring in biology, minoring in chemistry and human rights. My plan is to go to medical school. This last quarter I took neurobiology, human immunology and organic chemistry all at the same time. I didn’t really plan out my year very well and all of those classes kind of hit me at once. I did learn a lot, I had some teammates in some of those classes. The knee, redshirting this outdoor season was kind of a blessing in disguise because I was able to spend more time in the classroom and maintain grades. I probably learned a lot more than I would have traveling because you miss every other weekend, three or four days at a time. It’s one of those things that a lot of people think student-athletes go to college for sports, they do, but that’s not the entire story. For me, I do research in the department of pharmacy and I do work from home during the summer and I also train. Thats my whole 24-hour schedule, making sure I get enough sleep and train. I’m really trying to take advantage of, not just my athletic career, but my professional career.”
MTN Sports: What do you have left for seasons indoor, seasons outdoor and what are the heights we’re shooting for?
Smith: “I have yet to get first-team all-American. I’ve been close, but it just hasn’t worked out the way it needed to. Moving forward, I have one indoor and two outdoor seasons left. Who would I be if I didn’t want a national title? Everybody wants a national title and I’ve been working twice as hard, twice as long, so I should be able to have a good shot at it. That’s the ultimate goal, to win a national title. It would pretty much prove to the country that I’ve been putting in this work for something that I want to earn. Hopefully I’ll be able to hit an Olympic A standard and move on there, see how the Olympic Trials would go. The Olympic standard is 5.70 meters.”
MTN Sports: Are you closing in on that? Is that what you dream about at night, and every time you’re up in the air you imagine that height?
Smith: “I remember when I did attempt 5.60 meters indoors, and I thought, ‘Wow. It could have been almost an Olympic Trial qualifier.’ It’s one of those things that hits you once it’s there. It’s one of those things that you can’t go out there and say, ‘OK, today I’m going to hit the Olympic Trial qualifier.’ That makes it sound more like a job. Like I said earlier, pole vaulting is something you do for fun. You don’t hear pole vaulters make millions of dollars, so it’s something you do for fun. It’s something you do for other kids who are looking for a sport. It’s a very unique thing. It’s an individual sport, but there’s a lot of teamwork to it. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s there.”
MTN Sports: Elaborate on the surgery, are there nerves going into this? Had you had surgery before?
Smith: “After I had my appendectomy, it could be worse, right? I’m not worried about it. Because I want to go to medical school, it’s one of those things that I know is good for me. I know they’ll do the right things. As long as I keep up on my diet and exercise, therapy and stuff like that, it’s just another day at the ballpark. As long as I get it done, it’s done.”
MTN Sports: Because you’re a med student, does that mean you’re going to have them record it so you can go back and watch it after?
Smith: “I did ask Dr. Kwan, I was like, ‘OK, when I can walk I can job shadow you, right?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, sure. Just come on in.’ That’s actually the plan.”
MTN Sports: Switching gears a little bit, Garrison Hughes from Sidney, do you know him? Had you heard of him?
Smith: “Yeah, I know Garrison. He’s a good kid. I heard when he didn’t break my state record, which sucks. To me he has it, because (my 16 feet, 4 inches) is the state meet record, not the record. I’ll probably see him at West Regionals or something like that, so best of luck to Garrison. It was cool. I was happy for him (when he cleared 17 feet earlier this season.) For a while there he was sending me messages on Instagram, so it was almost like my state record, too, because I helped him out with poles. He eventually figured it out so he could get stuff done, but I remember for a while he would ask, ‘What 15-07 should I get on? Should I get bigger poles?’ Stuff like that. I remember telling him, ‘Yeah, I would do this. Take advantage of jumping indoors. Go other places besides just the high school season.’ I think he really took advantage of it. I don’t know if he knows it, but I’m proud of him. It’s one of those things where, records are meant to be broken.”
MTN Sports: Is there that pride of watching one another go higher and higher, especially if you get a chance to help them?
Smith: “I did loan some of my old high school poles to Lincoln (Young of Manhattan Christian.) I was bummed to hear he didn’t do as well as he had hoped. It’s one of those things where you really don’t want to see someone do poorly. That’s just not right to me. If you started pole vaulting and you were jumping 18 feet, I wouldn’t be jealous. I would be right there with you. It’s just one of those things.”
MTN Sports: If I go 18 feet, you and I will have some serious, well, that won’t happen anytime soon, so we shouldn’t have to worry about it.
Smith: “You would be surprised. Jeff Hartwig jumped 18 feet at over 40 years old.
MTN Sports: Any time for fun, playing video games, hanging with the guys, whatever it may be?
Smith: “I do hang out with my roommates a lot. All of them are on the track team, so I see them all the time. My girlfriend is on the track team, so pretty much, my life revolves around the track team. I have friends from classes and stuff like that, but I get a lot of support from people that aren’t on the track team. My uncle lives in Seattle and he does a really nice job of coming to meets, or saying, ‘Did you see that this guy jumped that?’ That, and my dad, he’s consistently driven out to indoor for home meets, every weekend for home meets. I can’t ask for anything better than that.”