BYU was recruiting a promising pole vaulter named Zach McWhorter out of Arkansas a couple of years ago but there was one problem: The school didn’t have a full-time vault coach and McWhorter said he wouldn’t sign if the school didn’t change that. BYU found one — in McWhorter’s own house. 

It was a package deal, a father-son duo. While Zach flew off to the South Pacific to serve a church mission, Rick McWhorter, a doctor and surgeon and part-time coach, sold his Arkansas farm, his homemade pole vault camp and his medical practice and moved to Utah to coach his son. The father is back at BYU — where it all began — this time coaching Zach, just as he has for more than a decade. The reunion has produced good results.

Heading into this week’s NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships, Zach has the second highest vault in the country, 18 feet, 10 ¾ inches, which broke a 14-year school record by 2 ½ inches. He seemed to have cleared 19-0 ¾ — which would have been a world record for left-handed vaulters — but the bar wobbled a couple of times and then finally fell into the pit.

“I still don’t know what knocked it off,” he said.

Like most schools, BYU maintains a list of the top 10 marks in each event. The No. 10 mark was held by Zach’s father until another of his vaulters, converted decathlete Caleb Witsken, topped 18-1 ¼ this season, knocking the coach to 11th. The McWhorters and Witsken wound up on the March cover of Vaulter Magazine, along with the rest of the large BYU pole vault squad.

Like father, like son

“If you look at elite vaulters, a large number of their dads were vaulters,” said Mark Robison, the school’s jump coach.

Armand “Mondo” DuPlantis, who set the indoor (20-3 ½) and outdoor (20-2) world records last year at the age of 20, is the son of Greg, an Olympic pole vaulter who scaled 19 feet. KC Lightfoot, the collegiate record holder (19-8 ½) is the son of a high school vaulter.

Rick McWhorter also was an excellent vaulter. He thought his pole vaulting career was finished after he cleared a best of 15 feet in high school. He moved from Texas and enrolled at BYU on an academic scholarship. He was running on the track with a P.E. class one day when he saw the school’s track team training. He watched the pole vaulters practice for a while and fell into a conversation with the event coach, Larry Berryhill. The coach offered him a one-month tryout.

Rick McWhorter made the team and a year later cleared 17 feet, 9 inches, the No. 2 indoor vault in school history at the time, and became the Western Athletic Conference champion. Ankle and knee surgeries hampered him the remainder of his career.

“They were a blessing in disguise,” he said. “I realized I better start getting serious about school.”

Hay is in the barn

Rick McWhorter studied medicine at the University of Texas and served his residency in urological surgery in Pennsylvania before opening a practice in Logan. Two years later, fleeing the cold and snow, he moved his wife and four children to Arkansas. They settled on a 16-acre farm, and when the oldest of the children, Jayk, was in high school, Dad decided to introduce him to the pole vault.

BYU pole vaulter Zach McWhorter talks with his dad, Rick, who is also his coach, during a workout at the Smith Fieldhouse at BYU in Provo on Friday, March 5, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

He bought an old pole vault pit and standards from a high school for $5,500 and set up the equipment in a rented warehouse for winter training. When the weather was warmer, he built a wooden runway on the farm and covered it with rubber mat. He also converted a barn on his farm into a dance hall for church events and an indoor training center, with weights, gymnastics rings and equipment for various pole vault drills. It’s an expensive sport, which is primarily why so many high school and college athletic programs have dropped it. McWhorter estimates he bought about 40 poles during the next few years at $500 to $700 per to equip his vaulters.

“Fortunately, I’m a doctor,” he said.

Anyway, word spread. Soon other kids were joining them for vaulting sessions two to three times times a week. Ten to 15 of them at a time would arrive at the farm on a given evening to train with the McWhorters, parking their cars in the pasture. Rick, who never charged for his coaching services, formed a USA Track and Field club. Success followed.

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Isabel Neal became the Arkansas state champion and is now BYU’s top female vaulter. April Bennett went on to make the Olympic team. Lightfoot, the collegiate record holder, lived three hours away and spent weekends at the farm training with Zach. Payton Stumbaugh, an aspiring heptathlete at the time, went on to become an NCAA champion in the hurdles and a 12-time All-American at the University of Arkansas (under the married name of Chadwick) before turning professional. Sandi Morris, the Olympic silver medalist and 2018 world champion, didn’t train there, but she held a vault camp on the farm.

Jayk, Rick’s oldest child, became a good high school pole vaulter. Charlotte, one of two daughters, vaulted 11 feet as a sophomore and was region champion, but her interest in the sport faded. Zach, who was 10 when he took up the sport, embraced the sport and had years to develop his craft. 

Student of the game

“He watched hours and hours of film even in junior high,” said Rick. “He still watches the best in the world weekly.”

As soon as Zach was old enough to jump, he and his father traveled to Reno, Nevada, each winter to participate in a pole vault summit, which consisted of two days of instruction and one day of vaulting. “I was learning to be a better coach,” said Rick. 

BYU pole vaulter Zach McWhorter goes up for a vault as he trains with his dad, Rick, who is also his coach, at the Smith Fieldhouse at BYU in Provo on Friday, March 5, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

For reasons even he can’t explain, Zach, who is right-handed, insisted on vaulting left-handed even when his father tried to talk him out of it.

“I really don’t know why I felt more comfortable vaulting left-handed,” he said. “It seems I’m ambidextrous in sports. I dribble a basketball left-handed, shoot right-handed; I dunk off my left leg, but pole vault off my right leg.”

Zach won three Arkansas state outdoor championships, with a best clearance of 17 feet, 2 inches, and won the U.S. Junior Olympics (against his age group). He made official visits to the Air Force Academy, Texas Tech, Baylor, Stanford and Kentucky, but chose BYU largely because it was the one school that would accommodate his plans to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but initially he balked at signing with the school. If they couldn’t find a pole vault coach, he said, they should consider his father.

Have pole, will travel

BYU has always relied on volunteer coaches from the community to coach pole vaulters because, as Robison explains, “It takes more time than any other single event. It’s just so time-consuming that we need somebody who will just handle the pole vault.”

Robison discussed the idea with Rick, who also happened to be a longtime friend. Rick worried that Zach might be tired of having his dad as his coach and suggested he ask his son about it. Zach embraced the idea and signed with the school. After the state meet, he competed in a decathlon the following Thursday and Friday, graduated from high school on Saturday, graduated from seminary class on Sunday, and left for his mission on Monday. He served in Indonesia for two years.

All of Rick’s children had moved from Arkansas to Utah to attend school, so there were other reasons for him to make the move, as well. After thinking about it for some time, he explored his options and found an opening with Intermountain Healthcare in Provo, but they wanted him to start immediately. They compromised: For a year and half he would fly to Provo and be the on-call doctor for five days each month if they would hold the position for him until 2019, when he would make a permanent move. So for a year and a half he flew between Arkansas and Utah to serve as the on-call surgeon. In 2019, he moved to Provo to become a full-time surgeon and BYU vault coach.

When Zach returned to Provo in May 2019, he was urged to redshirt his first season so he could focus on getting back in shape, but he wouldn’t have it. In December he cleared 18-8½ in his first collegiate competition, just seven months after returning from his two-year layoff.

The father-son combination continues to produce results.

“Of course in junior high and high school we had some disputes and sometimes it’s challenging to separate the coach-athlete and father-son relationship. He’s a great coach. He knows the sport. It’s my fault when things don’t go as planned at a meet. It’s easy to make him the scapegoat and we were shouting at each other. But we’ve moved past that stage.” — Zach McWhorter

“Of course in junior high and high school we had some disputes and sometimes it’s challenging to separate the coach-athlete and father-son relationship,” said Zach. “He’s a great coach. He knows the sport. It’s my fault when things don’t go as planned at a meet. It’s easy to make him the scapegoat and we were shouting at each other. But we’ve moved past that stage.”

Zach is nothing if not coachable because of his studious approach to his craft. He studies films of the best vaulters in the world in slow motion “trying to internalize” the same things they do. “Since I got back from my mission, I try to think like a scientist (about vaulting),” he said. “I never think I know everything. There are a lot of different models about the correct way to vault. I try to challenge my ideas. It pushes me out of my comfort zone for a while while I try to implement them. It’s like that in all aspects of life.”

“He is an amazing student of the sport,” said Robison.

“He’s never satisfied,” said Rick.

Even toward the end of his mission he began to think about pole vaulting again and planning different approaches to the sport, right down to the way he warmed up for competition and training ideas. He vowed that when he returned he would run hills and stairs to get stronger and faster.

BYU pole vaulter Zach McWhorter warms up before beginning his workout at the Smith Fieldhouse at BYU in Provo on Friday, March 5, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“A week before I came home I emailed Lightfoot’s dad and asked him for things I should do when I return and he wrote back and said I should runs hills and stairs,” said Zach.

But as important as the physical preparation is, there is another aspect that might be even more difficult of an undertaking. “You’ve got to be absolutely fearless to pole vault,” said Robison. Think about it: McWhorter is running full speed at a pit and jamming a 16-foot fiberglass pole that will launch him to the top of a two-story building, doing a handstand at the top of the climb. They can miss the pit or fall back onto the runway.

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“It’s much more of a mental sport than physical,” said Zach. “You have to mentally be in a good place. If you lack any confidence, it won’t go well.”

Last year he came up short and wound up getting impaled by the pole in his scrotum. His father used 18 stitches to repair the wound.

Rick maintains a frenetic schedule to balance his duties as a doctor and coach. He works full time at Utah Valley Hospital, he begins seeing patients at 7 a.m. and works through lunch until 1 and then goes to the track. Sometimes he returns to the hospital after practice and performs surgery or sees more patients, sometimes until as late as 8 or 9 p.m.

“It has been an awesome experience — not just with Zach but with all the athletes,” he said. “I still have a lot to learn, but I have enjoyed every minute of it.”

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