WHITEHALL – Last spring, David Conrad broke a West Michigan All-Star Invitational meet record in pole vault that had stood for 18 years when he cleared 15 feet, 7 inches.
Now a senior at Whitehall, Conrad has his sights set even higher. He thinks 16-6 is within his reach. In a dream scenario, he’d love to eclipse the state finals-record mark of 16-9 ½ established by East Kentwood’s Trevor Stephenson in 2018.
These lofty goals in mind, would you believe that Conrad is afraid of heights?
“I like doing a lot of things that give me, like, that adrenaline rush,” said Conrad, 18, the younger of Billie and Doug Conrad’s two sons. “I pole vault, I rock climb, I do all these things. It’s just a lot of fun. I mean, it’s just everything you’ve got all at once for just a split second and it’s a lot of fun.”
“My friends are always making jokes, ‘You should just pole vault up there (on a rock wall). It would be a lot easier,’” Conrad added with a laugh.
On a recent spring-break trip with family and friends, Conrad scaled 80-foot walls at Red River Gorge in Kentucky.
He said he’s terrified every time he climbs, but there is no bigger rush.
“I’m definitely scared of heights … I just do it anyways,” he said with a chuckle.
Photos by Scott DeCamp | CatchMark
When it comes to pole vaulting, Conrad has it broken down to a science. Advanced Placement Physics is one of four AP classes that the 4.25 student is currently taking. The knowledge comes in handy when attempting to speed down the runway with a pole, plant and catapult his 5-foot-11, 160-pound frame over the bar.
According to Vikings vaulting peer and classmate Micah Witham, Conrad is really good at analyzing, learning and understanding what’s going wrong and then working to make corrections.
Witham said the only times he’s beaten Conrad in pole vaulting is when Conrad “no heights” or fails to clear the bar. Conrad considers Witham one of the better vaulters in the area, and Witham’s PR of 14-0 would support that claim.
They continue to push each other.
“We basically just hold each other accountable because a lot of the time at practices and stuff we used to just go back and do as many jumps as we could from a long step just because it’s fun — you can go higher, but it doesn’t really make you improve,” Witham said.
“Once we started actually learning pole vault and holding each other accountable and, like, doing swing drills, slide boxes – just every drill that’s not that fun to do but helps a lot – that’s when (they improve).”
Conrad took up pole vaulting in as a “tiny, little sixth-grader,” who couldn’t run very fast and was unable to clear the starting height of 6 feet. In seventh grade, he cleared the starting height. By eighth grade, he could bend the pole and cleared 10 feet.
COVID-19 forced the cancellation of his freshman track and field season at Whitehall, but Conrad used that time to become stronger and faster. When his sophomore season rolled around, he was clearing 12 and 13 feet. He tied for 12th at the MHSAA’s Division 2 state finals with an effort of 11-4.
Conrad kept climbing last season. He broke Whitehall’s school record of 14 feet during the indoor season his junior year with a height of 14-4, then he kept going: 14-9, 15-3, 15-6 and 15-7. He rose to fourth at the Division 2 state championships with a vault of 14-1 – perhaps a bit disappointing by his high standards, but an improvement nonetheless.
Conrad said he’s been a little stagnant so far this season. His top height this spring is 14-0, but he anticipates that once the weather warms and conditions improve, his marks will climb. In his mind, ideal conditions for vaulting are 70 degrees, overcast and little to no wind.
Veteran Whitehall track coach Kirk Mikkelson is not betting against Conrad.
“Give David a challenge: My money is on him,” Mikkelson said. “I believe he can visualize things in his mind, analyze them, and solve them. He probably has vision that he considers normal, but most people can’t see.
“We all love his passion and patience. We have been working on the pieces of his technique that will take him over the next bar. A little warm weather would be greatly appreciated so that he can show that off.”
Conrad most certainly has honed his craft. He works with the Kentwood Track Club, trying to find that next level.
Speaking of the next level, Conrad has signed with Grand Valley State University where he will compete with the Division II Lakers’ track and field program and pursue his goal of becoming a teacher and coach. Other schools such as Michigan State and the Naval Academy also reached out to Conrad.
Mother Billie Conrad is a teacher at Whitehall’s Ealy Elementary and David is looking to make an impact in the same way. He is involved with the “Hope Squad” at Whitehall High School, which is a peer-to-peer suicide prevention program.
“Through that group, I’ve found a lot of fulfillment through the work that we’ve done and in mental health and helping others and it really translates well to becoming a teacher,” the well-read Conrad said. “As a teacher, I feel, is the best way that I can continue that and keep those things going. That’s a big reason why I want to become a teacher. Also, I just love school – I like learning.”
Mikkelson calls Conrad’s vaulting talent “special” and said the best part is that he shares it so selflessly. Conrad loves other people and he’ll help anyone, according to his coach. Conrad carries himself with more maturity in that way.
At the same time, he has aspirations from the team and individual standpoints. Conrad believes the deep and talented Whitehall squad has the ability to capture a state championship this season. Occasionally, Conrad competes in track events such as the 100-meter dash and 4×100 relay, but he’s really looking to leave his mark in his specialty, the pole vault.
“I kind of have three goals: 16 (feet) is my goal right now – that’s like a really reasonable goal. I can do it in any meet, really,” he said. “And then 16-6, that’s my end of the season goal. And then the state record, 16-10, that’s like if everything goes great, that’s what I’m shooting for.”
Photo by Emily Vanderstelt | CatchMark
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