Pole vaulter Ryan Brown already has accomplished more than almost any athlete in Western Washington University history.
He’s a two-time NCAA Division II national champion, a school and conference record-holder both indoors and outdoors, and last year was named Western’s Male Athlete of the Year.
Not bad, but he’s not done.
Brown is talking of reaching even more dizzying heights: two more national championships, a national record, vaulting 19 feet and — dare we even say it? — making the Olympics.
But while these Olympic-sized dreams may be possible, there is one dream the senior from Bellingham and a graduate of Squalicum High School, will never realize.
“There’s a huge team of people who helped me,” said Brown of his success. “I wish I could bring them all up on the podium. But it’s a pretty small podium.”
In the midst of all his incredible achievements, the publicity they generate and the expectations of others, it might seem hard for a 21-year-old to be truly humble and keep it all in perspective. Not for Brown.
For one thing, he knows what it’s like not to be the star.
The fourth of five children, Brown grew up as just another jock in a family of athletes. He wasn’t the first to be successful in college (his oldest sister, Jenn, played three sports at Edmonds Community College). He wasn’t even the best pole vaulter in the family (his older brother D.J. won a state championship at Squalicum High School).
Yet Brown looks back and sees how the encouragement and love of his parents, Don and Cindy, helped each of the children become successful in their own sports.
“We had the perfect household,” he said. “Our parents pushed us enough to play, but they wanted us to have fun. My dad wanted me to be a baseball player. Now he tries to get to all my national meets. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my family.”
That family support has only gotten stronger with all Ryan’s success.
“There’s seven of us, so I usually have my own crowd at the meets,” he said.
He wasn’t always the star of the show. In the era of high school media blitzes, where national websites track the best athletes from middle school on up, and television and YouTube show footage of all the big prep events, Brown was almost unknown in high school outside of Whatcom County.
He followed in D.J.’s big footsteps at Squalicum, immediately becoming another of jumpers coach Rod Kammenga’s outstanding vaulters. Ryan wanted to break his brother’s school record (16-feet) and win a state championship. He did neither.
He did place seventh at state his junior year, but his senior year Brown no-heighted at district meaning he didn’t even qualify for state, instead watching Storm teammate Sam Sampson vault to the 2007 state title.
“Colleges were calling me about Sam, but nobody called about Ryan,” said Dick Henrie, a Western assistant coach and pole vaulting guru who has helped many Whatcom County high school vaulters over the past 30 years.
“We talked to him about coming to Western. But he didn’t get any money to come here. He’s a one-event specialist, and wasn’t really highly recruited.”
Falling under the radar of major college programs because of the district disappointment turned out to be Western’s great fortune.
“Dick knew about Ryan,” said Pee Wee Halsell, long-time Western coach. “We knew he was a good vaulter. He no-heighted at district, and that opened the door for us. We’ve been fortunate to have found diamonds in the rough.”
But after that senior year “failure,” Brown kept life in perspective. He wanted to go to a four-year school to be a chiropractor, and Western had a respected kinesiology program. Getting a chance to continue vaulting for the Vikings, especially with Henrie, was a bonus. Brown shrugged it off as a simple decision.
“Pole vaulting is what I do, but not who I am,” he said. “There are more important things in my life: my relationship with God, with my family, my schooling. Being content is a big thing. I am content with where I am.”
That, said Henrie, is what makes Brown special.
“Most kids would have quit (after missing state),” said Henrie. “He didn’t get the attention in high school. Now he wins every award you can win, and he doesn’t talk about it.
“He’s got the perfect attitude about life. He doesn’t get his sense of worth from vaulting. He does other things. He’s a Big Brother to a kid, he works, he’s a hard-working student. I’ve learned as much from him as a human being as he’s learned from me.”
But having an even-keeled personality and even a “perfect attitude” aren’t enough to propel a 180-pound human being more than 17 feet off the ground using only a long, bendable pole.
Probably more than any other track and field event, pole vaulting requires the perfect combination of strength, speed, technique and fearlessness. And Brown has all the traits.
At 6-foot-3 with speed and the “hops” to do a little high jumping at Western just for fun, he looks like a shooting guard for the Vikings basketball team. He’s also had the advantage of working with two of the top pole vault coaches in the state in Kammenga and Henrie, and can train all year long out of the elements at the indoor Bellingham Sportsplex.
But Brown recognizes that other top vaulters have the same and maybe even more physical advantages. What separates the good from the great is the mental advantage.
“Pole vaulting is 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental,” he said. “If you’re not there mentally and don’t have the drive, you can’t succeed.”
All of which makes Brown the complete package.
“He’s tall and fast and smart with a great attitude,” said Halsell. “He’s a good team player, a great competitor, a student of pole vaulting. He’s been fortunate to have great coaches in Rod and Dick. Now he’s more mature, has talent, and is confident, but definitely not cocky.”
Brown’s rise from a good high school vaulter to national champion college vaulter was steady. His freshman season, he won the first of his three consecutive Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) titles. As a sophomore, he qualified for the 2009 indoor nationals, placing 13th out of 14. It was then, as he saw the competition at nationals that Brown realized what heights he could reach.
“Something sparked up in me; I realized they were just like me,” he remembered. “The only thing holding me back was my mind. I just needed to step up and do it.”
Even Halsell and Henrie, who watched as Brown grew stronger and more mature, never expected him to do what he did his junior season. First he reached 17 feet during the indoor season and was ranked as the top Division II pole vaulter going into the national meet.
There he opened at 16 feet, eventually making 16-11 on his first try before missing at 17-3. But his only competition also missed at 17-3, and Brown was declared the champion on fewer misses. In track tradition, Brown was given the championship trophy by his vaulting coach.
“Dick got to hand out the trophies, and he was kind of emotional,” said Brown. “It was really cool. It took a while to sink in. A couple of days later, I thought, ‘I’m a national champion.’ But then it was like, ‘Now let’s go; the outdoor season starts right away.’”
Ah, the 2010 outdoor season. He became the conference’s first vaulter to reach 17 feet both indoors and outdoors. He won the conference title again. But it was all a warm-up for the national meet, where Brown did what all athletes dream of: executing his best when it counted the most.
“The outdoor nationals was my best meet ever,” said Brown. “Dick described it as very business-like, having fun, being relaxed. It all came together.”
It sure did. Brown soared an incredible 17 feet, 8 1/2 inches to break the school and conference records and win his second national title by more than a foot. He also became the first Viking in nearly a century of track and field competition to win more than one national championship.
And don’t dismiss this as “small college” stuff; Brown’s height was the same as the winning vault for the NCAA Division I outdoor title. In fact, before 1967 it would have been a world record.
For Brown, it came easy — or at least was easy to describe.
“To have the perfect jump, the most important thing is the mind,” he said. “You have to visualize clearing the bar. I always imagine clearing the bar 6 inches above where it is. The good ones feel really easy. When you fly over you know it.”
After that perfect jump, the accolades came flowing in. He was named the GNAC Male Indoor Track and Field Athlete of the Year, the NCAA II West Region Field Athlete of the Year for the second season in a row, and the school’s male athlete of the year, a rarity for a junior.
Perhaps because of the amazing jumps in improvement he’s made each year and the potential he has to be even better, Brown is not afraid to keep setting the bar higher – both literally and figuratively.
“When I saw that I was ranked 11th (among all college vaulters), I thought, ‘You can be in the Olympics. You can get it.’” Brown said. “It is the belief that separates the Olympians. People don’t want to fail, but I’m not afraid to fail. They (Olympians) are just like me: their mind set, confidence, belief. I have a belief in my family, my coaches and my God.”
Is this all unrealistic talk from a dreamer? Going 17-8 in a Division II meet is one thing; reaching the 19-foot level, which would have won the bronze medal at the last Olympics, is another.
But let’s ask the coaches who already have watched him improve by more than a foot in a year and take his game to heights never seen by a Western athlete.
“He’s going to get stronger and faster as he gets older,” said Henrie. “I’ve seen kids with a lot less ability than him jump a foot higher than I thought. It’s possible he could jump 18-plus indoor (this spring). Outdoors, with a tailwind, on a sunny day, he could clear 18-6 maybe 19 feet. When he went 17-8, he cleared it by a foot.”
“He’s young to be looking at that (19 feet), but he’s capable of it.,” said Halsell. “If he can reach it … he could win the Olympics. So many factors go into that. But physically and mentally he could do it. I guess we’ll have to buy him some new poles.”
National championships. Nineteen feet. The Olympics. We’re talking heady stuff for a college student from little ol’ Bellingham. Surely all of this would crack the humble veneer and show Brown for who he truly is.
Actually it does show who he truly is.
“Everybody’s concerned about him being an Olympian,” said Henrie. “All I know is that he’ll be one heck of a chiropractor. He gets a lot of attention because he jumped high, but I’d like him to get attention for being a good guy.”
And whenever he does get all that attention, rest assured Brown will be thanking a whole lot of people who helped him along the way.