Jennifer ‘Jenn’ Suhr is the reigning Olympic champion in women’s pole vault after winning gold at the 2012 London Olympics. On Friday, she will try to win her second consecutive gold in the event at the Rio Olympics. The final is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
Suhr, who has had to overcome an illness to compete in Rio, also has a silver medal from the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. She’s also the reigning world indoor champion. Plus, she holds the women’s world indoor pole vaulting record, which she set in January 2016 with a 5.03m (16′ 5.5″) jump.
Here’s a look at Suhr’s life and career.
1. Suhr Came Down With a Mysterious Illness Just Before the Qualifiers & Still Made It to the Final
The day before the qualifiers on August 16, Suhr’s husband and coach Rich Suhr wrote on Facebook that Suhr has been “quite ill.” He continued:
This morning it has really kicked in, she has lost her voice almost completely. Seems she picked up a nasty virus here and has caused respiratory complications. This sucks, and I mean really sucks! Seems so unfair, we came here in the greatest shape of our life.4 years of total dedication eaten up in one nasty virus that is only getting worse.
Despite the illness, Suhr refused to withdraw from the competition. But it didn’t matter. She still made it to the final with a successful 4.60m jump.
“Today is probably the worst I’ve felt,” Suhr told the Associated Press after the qualifiers. “I can deal with the respiratory. It’s the dizziness and always feeling like when I have to cough, like I’m going to throw up. It’s just a battle right now.”
Suhr’s path to the gold wasn’t expected to be difficult, especially after Russian world record holder Yelena Isinbayeva was banned from the games due to a doping investigation. However, the illness has made it a struggle. On August 17, Rick Suhr wrote that there has been “no change in her yet.”
2. Suhr Played Softball, Basketball & Other Sports & Didn’t Start Pole Vaulting Until She Was 22
Although she has always been a gifted athlete, Suhr was not initially interested in pole vaulting at all. As Buffalo News notes, Suhr’s first sport was softball when she was 6 and started playing golf with her grandfather at age 9. At Fredonia High School in Fredonia, New York, she played softball, soccer and basketball and ran track. She even won the state pentathlon title.
Suhr attended Roberts Wesleyan College, where she continued playing basketball. But her life changed when she met Rich Suhr in 2004. He thought she would be great at pole vaulting.
Rick Suhr told the Buffalo News that Suhr has taken advantage of her athletic gifts. “There’s lots of people who have the same potential. But who does it? There’s a mental toughness to her, an obsessiveness that made her go beyond everybody else,” he said.
3. Suhr & Her Coach Were at the Center of Controversy in Beijing When Rick Suhr Critiqued Her Silver Medal-Winning Performance
The lead-up to the Beijing Olympics was already difficult for Suhr, then still Stuczynski, as she created a media storm by vowing to “kick some Russian butt” at the 2008 Olympic trials. This caused the Russian media to build up a rivalry between her and Isinbayeva, who did win the gold.
Although Suhr won the silver, there wasn’t much time to celebrate before NBC’s cameras created another controversy. Twelve hours after the competition, NBC decided to air Rick Suhr’s harsh critique of her performance while he was texting. As ESPN notes, Suhr was looking away from her coach. Audiences in America wanted her to fire Rick Suhr.
Here’s what Rick Suhr said:
(It’s) the same old same old. You’re losing take-off at the big heights. What are you gonna do. You gotta learn to keep take-off. You got‹you got caught at that meat grinder. I did not—and I told 10 people—I did not want to be caught in a meat grinder between 65 and 80. You had to, though. You weren’t on, you know, your warm-up didn’t go well, you were 55, you got caught up in that meat grinder. What are you gonna do. What are you gonna do. You didn’t have the legs. Her legs are fresh. Hey, it’s a silver medal. Not bad for someone who’s been pole vaulting for four years.
Suhr later told ESPN that NBC didn’t show that her coach was responding to her questions about what she did wrong. When asked about her reaction to her coach, she explained:
I was discouraged with myself. It bothered me that I didn’t jump to my potential. It wasn’t anything he said. But people took that, and all of a sudden he’s a bad coach, and I need to find another coach.
Suhr never did fire her coach, of course. They announced that they got married in 2010.
4. Suhr Loves Animals & Has Cameras at Her New York Property to Watch the Wildlife
Suhr and Rick Suhr own a 10-are property in upstate New York and she installed video cameras around the property to watch the wildlife. “I love to go through the footage,” Suhr told ESPN in 2013.
Although she loves animals, the only domesticated pets she had in 2013 were a Great Pyrenees dog named Tundra and a tabby cat named Morris. She did once save a deer’s life and was following the deer as it grew up.
“When I started to get close to the baby deer, I expected it to jump up and run away. But when it stayed still, lying on its belly, legs spread out and with its face on the ground, I thought, ‘That’s not normal,'” she said. “So I picked her up and brought her home.”
“We set it up on the property where there’s the most traffic of deer, fox, rabbits,” she told USA Today in 2012. “I put apples out there to get them in front of the camera. When I travel I usually come home and check it. When I first got it, I was checking it every day. Now it’s probably once a week.”
5. She’s Been a Member of the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame Since 2013
In 2013, Suhr was inducted into the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame and has continued to rack up accolades. She owns the American outdoor pole vaulting record at 4.90m and the world indoor record at 5.02m. She’s been the top-ranked American pole vaulter since 2006 and is the top-ranked pole vaulter in the world.
In an interview with the Buffalo News, Suhr said of her sport:
Every sport has its challenges, but pole vaulting combines it all. Every part of your body is used. That’s why I don’t shoot hoops anymore. I don’t even swing a golf club during the season in case I hit the ground and hurt my back. Everything is needed, from my fingers all the way to my toes. I can’t vault if something’s broken.
On July 28, Rick Suhr wrote on Facebook that the 34-year-old Suhr doesn’t plan on retiring and will hope to be in Tokyo for 2020. “This could certainly change but as of now we intend to earn, perhaps for a second time, what we earned. That is the toughness of life. You really have to earn it… Sometimes twice,” Rick Suhr wrote.