MAPLE PARK – Alex Markuson begins his pole vault approaches 20 to 25 feet closer than his Kaneland boys track and field teammates.
Sure, Markuson exudes eagerness, but he also takes fewer steps out of necessity.
There’s little other alternative for a pole vaulter with cerebral palsy.
Markuson’s calves, hamstrings and glutes tightened as his condition developed at birth. He walks with a limp, often on his toes, and can admittedly lumber down the runway at times. When he propels himself in the air, that hardly matters. A pole vault coach with three decades’ experience says he finds more thrill in watching Markuson clear 10 feet than elite vaulters going 16-plus.
Former longtime Sterling coach Max Gaumer thinks Markuson is courageous for even attempting to excel in a sport filled with daredevils. Markuson thinks he’s grabbing his pole for another run.
“My strides are really short, and I’m really just not flexible,” Markuson said, “but I learn to work with what I’ve got, you know.”
Apart from an unquestioned commitment, Markuson’s biggest benefit is arguably his upper body strength. Knights pole vault coach Andy Drendel smirks when he says it looks like Markuson is wearing football pads all the time, or that “he’s got the biggest traps I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”
Older brother Logan, a former Kaneland state champion hurdler who now vaults and hurdles at Minnesota, remembers that attribute from the early days. He gladly observed its updated version while on spring break last week, stopping by practice to see his brother win another handstand contest or wow the gym with his prowess in the rope pulley drill.
Pole vaulting runs deep in the Markuson makeup. Before his sons competed, Jay Markuson held the Batavia record of 14-6 from 1977 until recent graduate Brandon Clabough eclipsed the standard last spring. Vaulting in college, like Jay (Western Illinois), has provided Logan Markuson with plenty of perspective about other approaches to the event.
Upon further review, he still thinks his brother is incredibly unique.
“A lot of times in high school, they’ll find a kid who’s fast and who’s fearless and they’ll say, ‘Hey, grip the top of this pole and see how high it gets you,’ “ Logan Markuson said. “But kids like Alex who are maybe a little slower down the runway, they’d be slower on the runway, but then their upper body would take over and their form and technique would get him the height.”
Analyzing pole vault physics and maneuvers excites Alex Markuson, who initially aspired to do only that one summer morning as an incoming Kaneland Middle School sixth-grader.
He was content to tag along with Logan and sit on the sidelines for the beginning of Kaneland’s annual pole vaulting camp – a springboard for a program that’s advanced at least one vaulter to the state meet for 30 successive seasons – when Drendel approached.
Then a Western Illinois student helping at his alma mater, Drendel engaged Markuson and told him he still could try pole vault even though he wasn’t registered for the camp. A few minutes later, Markuson was practicing grass plants, planting his pole on the ground and perfecting his swing-through without going upside-down. He headed to the pole vault pit shortly thereafter. He’s been a regular since, establishing a personal best of 10-3 last spring.
“It’s just so different,” Markuson said. “There’s a lot of kids on the track team and in the program, but not a lot can say that they’re pole vaulters, you know. I want to be different from everyone else.”
That sentiment reflects a teenager’s yearning for independence because the Knights never focus on Markuson’s disability when they look at him.
He certainly makes himself visible. Sidelined by hamstring injuries for much of his freshman and sophomore seasons, Markuson still awoke early for Saturday road invitationals, happy to offer encouragement while filming or helping catch wayward poles.
“You come back, walk down the line, he says, ‘Hey, this is what you can do better. This is what you did good, you know,’ “ said senior Kory Harner, a two-time returning state qualifier. “He knows a lot about pole vaulting. He’s been around it for a long time.”
Working with his mother, Melanie, a physical therapist, has helped Markuson build his lower body flexibility through the years. He cleared 7-3 at the end of his freshman year, medaled at the frosh-soph Northern Illinois Big 12 meet the following spring and set his PR near the end of last season.
Schools use their top two vaulters at varsity meets, and Markuson is in the middle of the Knights’ depth chart, competing behind a group including Harner, Dylan Kuipers and JR Vest. Charting Markuson’s exploits remains a key part of the team fabric, however, even though he represents the JV during meets.
Markuson plans to study mechanical engineering at Wisconsin-Platteville and could ponder walking on to the track team if his vault progresses the way he wants. Each Knights vaulter aims to add at least one foot to his standard from the previous season, and Markuson already eclipsed 10 feet during indoors.
Most afternoons, Drendel has to convince Markuson there’ll be other workouts as he signals the last few attempts before the end of practice. Markuson possesses an innate focus, a stubbornness to prove others wrong. In pole vaulting, he’s found a sport that allows him to fix his glance for as long as he wants – or at least until coaches kick him out of the gym or outdoor pit.
“It’s you versus the bar. It’s not you versus somebody else who’s quicker than you or can shoot a basketball better than you,” Drendel said. “It’s just how much guts you’ve got and how big your heart is, and his is pretty big.”
Last season, Gaumer told Drendel he had never seen anything like Markuson in more than 30 years in track. Burlington Central pole vault coach Dave Burner hasn’t been around that long, but still derives inspiration, saying, “It just humbles me that he’s out there tearing it up with everyone else.”
Told of these plaudits, Markuson flashes a meek grin.
“I never really thought about it, but I guess it’s pretty unique when you put it like that,” he said. “There’s probably not too many in my situation doing what I do.”
There rarely has been reason for Markuson to dwell on it, though.
Like everyone around him, he’s working with what he’s got. That’s life, and Markuson is itching to clear its every last bar.