The alarm clock sounds at 4:30 every morning in Lance White's apartment. A half-hour later he is on the road, making the hour-long drive from Logan, up and down Sardine Canyon, to a loading dock in Layton. For the next four hours, he unloads tractor trailers a box at a time, $60 per truck.
After work, White drives back to Logan, eats lunch and then reports to Maughan Stadium, where he spends the afternoon catapulting himself through the air over a bar set high in the sky.White is a pole vaulter, and he has dropped out of college and taken a part-time job to focus on one goal: making the U.S. Olympic team.
"It's the danger, the thrill," says White. He is talking about the allure of the pole vault. If you've ever wondered what the appeal is of being slingshot to heights higher than most freeway overpasses, just listen to White.
"It's similar to what pilots feel in the air," he continues. "We consider it flying a natural way. I like to think of it as one of the more graceful sports. When it's done right, it's neat looking. It's a rush, an absolute rush. People pay money to go to Lagoon for a good ride like that."
Pole vaulting is one part circus daredevil act, one part aerial ballet and one part flying. Its practitioners sprint head-long down a runway, ram a fiber glasspole into a box until the pole bends about 90 degrees or more, then hang onto the pole upside down, perform a handstand at the top of the pole and wait for the pole to straighten and throw them over the bar. Nothing to it.
White has been doing this for 13 years. "It turned out to be addictive," says White.
So addictive that White has been known to strap his 17-foot vaulting poles to the side of his car for family vacations.
White, a 25-year-old Phoenix native who has one year left to complete his studies in industrial technology at Utah State, is training for this month's U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Atlanta. The top three finishers advance to the Olympic Games.
"I've been dreaming of the Olympics since I was 12 and started vaulting," he says. "It wasn't a reality then. But every kid dreams like that. Some kids want to play in the NFL or NBA. I wanted to be in the Olympic Games. Now it's within reach." White suddenly became a contender for a berth on the Olympic team this year when he vaulted 18-2, then 18-41/2 and 18-61/2 - the fourth best mark in the country so far this season. He'll probably have to do better to make the Olympic team. There are 18 active American vaulters who have cleared 18-81/4 or better.
"I'll bet it takes 18-10 or 19 to make the team," says White, who was sixth at the indoor national championships in Atlanta last March.
White is capable of such a vault. He has improved rapidly and steadily since he and his identical twin, Lane, took up the sport after watching big brother Mike (a 16-3 vaulter) vault in high school. As junior high students, Lance and Lane would begin vaulting after school at 2:30 and quit only when it became too dark to continue.
Lance scaled 10 feet as a 12-year-old. He cleared 12-6 as a prep freshman, 14-7 as a sophomore, 15-10 as a junior and 16-6 as a senior. The White twins had only each other for competition.
They enrolled at BYU. Lance's freshman season lasted only a couple of weeks before he was sidelined with a stress fracture. Lane cleared 17-61/2 as a freshman, but he never improved that mark. He eventually transferred to Northern Arizona and quit the sport after completing his collegiate eligibility.
Lance didn't vault for nearly three years while recovering from the stress fracture and serving an LDS Church mission. He transferred to Utah State and cleared 17-4 as a sophomore and 17-11 as a junior. He flirted with the 18-foot mark for a year and a half before he finally cleared it last year (by a half-inch) late in his senior season.
"Eighteen feet was a big mental block," says White, who was fourth in last year's NCAA championships. "It was a weekly ordeal. But after I got it once, I've been able to get it again and again. Now I don't think twice about it."
Vaulting might be the easiest part of the entire challenge for White these days. Just staying in the sport is difficult. The job at the loading dock helps White to support his wife Melanie and their infant daughter, but it isn't enough to support his sport.
A typical weekend trip to a major competition - including hotel, airline fare, car rental and food - costs nearly $500. Rocky Mountain Elite, a small club of Logan-based track athletes, has helped pay part of the bill, but White says, "I'm going into debt to do this. I try to pay it off, but it builds up."
Fortunately for White, he has a pole sponsor, which provides him with free poles (cost: approximately $470 per). The poles can and do break, and vaulters go through them at an alarming rate. White lost the sponsorship last year "because I didn't improve enough," but regained it this year.
Given his continued improvement, White's best years seem to be ahead of him, if only he can afford to pursue the sport. "I'll do whatever I can to keep it going," he says. "Maybe I can get something financially (more sponsorship) to help with the burden - so I have an excuse not to quit. This is when it gets good, when you get in big competitions and see the world a little and get a little respect for what you do. Some of the top vaulters in world are over 30."
While future prospects are uncertain, White strives to perfect his craft. He does repeat sprints. He studies video of his practice vaults. He lifts weights. He does gymnastics exercises. He practices his vault technique on a rope suspended from a ceiling (or even a tree near a lake), or on a pole under water. And to do all this, he unloads trucks every morning.
"This is not what I want to do in life," he says of his job, "but I'll do whatever it takes right now."