Just Two Inches More

Feb. 17, 2005

Paul Nicoletti is just two inches away from being listed in the Washington State University record book. Two inches is all that separates the senior from Snohomish, Washington, from being immortalized as one of the best pole vaulters in Cougar history.

Nicoletti's best pole vault height clearance is 16-feet, 10 3/4 inches. To be listed among the top ten Cougar greats in his event he will need to soar over the bar placed at 17-0 3/4 or higher. When you thrust yourself into the air, nearly three times your height, with all your weight resting on a 16-foot long fiberglass pole just 1 1/2 inches in diameter, two inches can seem like a yard.

Why would anyone choose this event? Nicoletti knows why he did.

'I always liked heights, climbing trees and jumping out. We put the high jump mat in the gym and we would climb on the bleachers and jump off onto them,' Nicoletti remembers. 'I always did football as a kid; it was my dad's big thing. My brother Tom and I were into football and baseball.'

But as a middle school student Nicoletti saw the pole vault and wanted to try it. He had high jumped but like all the others in his school, wasn't very good. Even though the school had poles and landing pit pads, they couldn't get the coach or the safety issues settled to get him started.

'They told me to wait till eighth grade,' he said. 'We had a good coach and he wouldn't let us on the mat until we had the technique down first, before we could start clearing.'

At Snohomish High Nicoletti played football three seasons and wrestled for one, but competed all four years as a pole vaulter. His senior year he placed fourth at the state 4A meet after winning the district title. The state winner that year was a sophomore named Tyson Byers from University High that is now Nicoletti's WSU teammate and training partner.

'I seriously considered going to Western Washington University,' Nicoletti said. 'The head coach, Pee Wee Halsell, is a really nice guy. With my PR, I would have been number two on their all-time list and been a big fish in a little pond. I was accepted into the art program there and ready to go there until the state meet when (Cougar Assistant) Coach (Kris) Grimes talked to me.'

Nicoletti arrived at WSU and joined the pole vault crew of Rick Collins, Lex Katich and Brian Preuss - solid vaulters but not outstanding. But he has competed against some of the best vaulters in the nation while at WSU. Like Brad Walker, a University High graduate who went on to be a four-time All-American pole vaulter at Washington, reaching 19-0 1/4 at the 2003 NCAA championships.

'I like Brad Walker because I know him,' Nicoletti said. 'To see where he came from and where he is now...he's such a powerful vaulter. It's awesome to watch him because I know him.'

And of course, there is Sergei Bubka, the Soviet vaulter who was a five-time world champion, bringing recognition to the event he dominated from 1983 until recent years when injuries hampered his ability to vault.

'He has the best technique,' Nicoletti said. 'Going to Reno this year (National Pole Vault Summit) and hearing his coach speak, I can see why he's the model pole vaulter.'

Pole vaulters are a certain type of person and for the most part, laid back. Nicoletti fits this description and considers himself easy going. With the routine of warming up and then waiting to compete, they are bound to develop friendships.

Like all vaulters, Nicoletti has become a student of the event, watching countless hours of video of himself and of others. He also relies on the critical eye of Coach Grimes to make adjustments.

'As a vaulter you know what you feel after every attempt so it's great to get a second opinion,' Nicoletti said. 'Coach is looking from the outside view. I can feel it but he can confirm it. When you watch film, if you can't visualize it (in your mind) you can see what you're feeling. Take a jump, look at the video tape.'

Does Nicoletti, the Cougar men's team captain, feel added pressure to reach his goals this year, especially now that his teammate Byers has cleared 17-5 (Feb. 12 at Nampa, Idaho)?

'I definitely feel this is a more-focused year on competition,' he said. 'There's always pressure but I kind of feel like it's my time to go high. I just have to do it now. There's no holding back, no next year. I might as well go all the way.'

Next year Nicoletti will be student-teaching in the fall and wants to find a job teaching, with some coaching duties added on, in the Palouse. He married former Cougar soccer player Shelby Brownfield last summer. She is currently working in the WSU Athletics Compliance office and is also expecting the couple's first child this summer.

'Shelby knows what it takes to be an athlete in college,' Nicoletti said. 'Coming home late from a lift or from practice - that is what she was doing last year so she understands the demands.'

So what will it take for Nicoletti to soar two more inches higher and reach the WSU historical annuls? He likes his chances at WSU's home field.

'A good tailwind at Mooberry; you can't beat that runway, especially when it is sunny,' he notes.

Grimes thinks Nicoletti is more than ready.

'Paul has stepped over a mental barrier in the last few weeks and decided he is capable of being an NCAA-level guy,' Grimes said. 'It's like a switch has gone off and he's gone from not being sure if he could do that but now I really feel like Paul thinks he can be an NCAA guy. That he can be the top of the conference and compete with the best in the U.S. That is something he's had to change in his mind and now he's certainly at that level.'

Two more inches may just be a beginning.

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