Plainfield Central grad hopes to be on Team USA at Summer Olympics in Paris

Luke Winder poses for a photo at the Rise Pole Vault training facility on Wednesday, May 29, 2024 in Joliet. Luke will be competing in the U.S Olympic trials in June, where the top three pole vaulter with my the Olympic team.

Joliet — Plainfield native Luke Winder has been pole vaulting for 20 years. Next month, he will be vying for one of three coveted spots to represent the U.S. in the sport at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

For Winder, who now lives in Berwyn, pole vaulting has always been a part of his life. His father, Tim, started pole vaulting at age 10 and became an Illinois state champion, inspiring Luke’s older brothers Jake and Josh to take up the sport as well.

“I grew up around it and wanted to be like my brothers,” said Winder, who officially started vaulting at age 8. “When I was younger, my parents thought it was important that it was play. I practiced, but it was more for fun. My dad coached all of us, but he made us ask him to keep training us when we were in our early teens before high school. He didn’t want to push it on us, and I respect that. The training became more structured after that, and he coached us all through college.”

Although all four Winders have high school state championships to their names and numerous college titles, including a combined 12 national championships, Luke, a Plainfield Central grad, is the first member of the family to make it to the Olympic trials.

“It’s been very exciting,” Luke Winder said. “The U.S. has a very deep slate of competitors in pole vaulting now, more than any other country, so it’s very hard to qualify. The last two Olympics, I was two out of qualifying for the trials, so it’s very exciting but nerve-wracking.”

Tough competition

Only the top 24 pole vaulters in the country qualify for the Olympic trials, which will take place from June 21 to 23 in Eugene, Oregon. Half the field will be eliminated in preliminary rounds June 21, and the final slate of only three vaulters will be selected in a final round June 23 to represent Team USA in Paris.

Winder’s personal best jump was 19 feet and a ¼ inch, which he achieved at a competition in April 2023, something he says he expects he’ll have to beat to qualify for the Olympics.

“I’ll probably need to go higher than 19 feet to qualify, but I’m definitely in condition now to go higher,” he said.

Each round gives competitors three attempts to clear the bar height. If a contestant misses all three jumps, they are eliminated. Once they clear it, they advance to the next bar. Although they have three attempts to clear a bar, it is beneficial to clear heights on the first or second attempt because in a tie for the highest height cleared, the jumper who cleared it in the fewest attempts is considered the winner.

Winder currently is ranked 14 out of 24 going into the trials, which could change in the coming weeks as contenders continue to compete.

“It’s going to be a cutthroat competition,” he said. “Anybody could make it. It just depends on who performs well and who has an off day. It’s a close community. We all just want it to be a good competition and see everyone jump their best. It’s anybody’s game.”

Winder qualified for the trials in January, at his first competition of the season, by scoring a jump that cleared the automatic qualification height of 5.72 meters (or about 18 feet, 9 inches).

“It was cool to hit that automatic qualifying mark so early,” he said. “I’ve been competing on and off since, but it meant I could mostly focus on training.”

Luke Winder stands by his set of poles at the Rise Pole Vault training facility on Wednesday, May 29, 2024 in Joliet. Luke will be competing in the U.S Olympic trials in June, where the top three pole vaulter with my the Olympic team.

Training and more training

Contrary to what many might expect, Winder said most of his training doesn’t actually involve vaulting, which he said is physically taxing and he limits to about one day a week.

“The rest is a lot of spring and power lifting, and some gymnastics work on the high bar, doing flips and pullups, which is the best thing I can do to simulate a pole vault without actually doing it,” he said.

He emphasized that pole vaulting is a sport that requires full body strength. While upper body strength is needed to actually plant the pole and launch a competitor over the bar, lower body strength and speed are required to get the momentum necessary for the jump.

“The goal is to get as much energy as you can put into your body and transfer it through the pole,” Winder said. “There’s a lot of technical things involved, but you’re constantly trying to figure out how to get a little more energy.

“I could name a hundred little steps I’m nonchalantly doing in my head from the moment I grip the pole until I land. I’ve just been doing it so long they come naturally to me now. The main things are being as tall and powerful through the run as possible and aggressively moving my arms to flip over the bar.”

Luke Winder talks about the technique used for hold the pole for vaulting at the Rise Pole Vault training facility on Wednesday, May 29, 2024 in Joliet. Luke will be competing in the U.S Olympic trials in June, where the top three pole vaulter with my the Olympic team.

The 6-foot-3 Plainfield Central and North Central College alum said he always has been confident that he could compete at the elite international level, but now, at 28 years old, it took more time than he expected.

“I always knew I could compete with the best in the world, but it got a little more delayed than I expected,” Winder said. “Usually when you think of Olympic athletes, you think of people who are 22 or 23, just finishing college, in their prime. I didn’t think I’d be here pushing 30, but, as I said, the sport is half physical, half technical. There are a lot of people who are older in pole vaulting because they build their mental strength through their careers.”

Winder said the last Olympic women’s gold medalist in pole vault had just turned 30 when she won her championship, and about half of the vaulters attending the trials are college-age, while the other half are in their late 20s to 30.

Even qualifying at his first contest of the year for the Olympic trials, Winder has faced a number of challenges getting to this point in the season after dealing with two bouts of the stomach flu and a non-acute bout of appendicitis in March.

“I was in so much pain I was throwing up,” he said of the appendicitis. “At first I thought it was the flu again, but the pain wouldn’t go away, and I went to the hospital at 3 a.m. They did a scan and said it was appendicitis. Luckily, they were able to treat it with antibiotics in an IV, and I didn’t need surgery. I knew I needed to keep training, and by the grace of God the antibiotics staved it off. It reminded me I needed to use every opportunity I have to get as strong and fast and aggressive as I can and live in the moment to take all the opportunities I can.”

In the long run, Winder said he thinks the illness may have worked out, since he rethought his training and competition schedule with his brother Jake, who also is his coach.

Winder feels less burnt out now than he has by June in previous years.

“In an Olympic year, the last thing you want is to get burned out,” he said. “I’m seeing it as a blessing in disguise. I took a step back, and I’m going into the Olympic trials fresher than usual at this point in the season. It was unfortunate to go through, but maybe it happened for a reason.”

Luke Winder talks about the science behind stored energy that pole vaulters use to achieve greater jumps at the Rise Pole Vault training facility on Wednesday, May 29, 2024 in Joliet. Luke will be competing in the U.S Olympic trials in June, where the top three pole vaulter with my the Olympic team.

A family effort

Jake, who took over as his brother’s coach after their father’s retirement, also owns RISE Pole Vault in Joliet, a gym where students can receive pole-vault training. Both brothers coach at the facility, and Luke serves as the general manager, allowing him to continue his training while working at his full-time job.

“I’m very blessed in that,” he said. “I’m very thankful to work with as many people as we do. Most people at my level can’t train and have a full-time job, so they have to scrape by sometimes. I’m very lucky.”

During the summer when school is out, Winder said RISE sees about 150 regular students using the facility, which mostly comprises local high school students and college students returning home for the summer.

Students, including 63 of the students who qualified for the IHSA’s state pole-vaulting competition this year, come to the gym from as far as Milwaukee to train with the Winders, but most are from within an hour of Joliet.

Although the majority of the students at RISE are in high school or college, Winder said some are younger teens in middle school or junior high, and some are much older, including his personal sponsor, Paul Skubic.

“Paul is 75 years old, and he still comes in to vault every Tuesday,” Luke said. “He’s a decathlete, and he came to us to learn to pole vault. Jake trained him, and he’s been a great resource for me. There’s not a lot of money in the U.S. for pole vault, and that’s where Paul comes in. He helps pay for my travel and physical therapy when I need it, and he does it out of the love in his heart for me and for the sport. He’s a great supporter and the reason I’ve been able to compete at higher and higher levels as I’ve gotten older.”

Skubic and his grandson will be part of the entourage of supporters who will be traveling with Luke to the Olympic trials next month along with Luke’s parents, both brothers and their wives, his wife Amber, and his nieces and nephews.

“I was just thinking about this the other day, that my parents started going to my track meets when I was a little kid and none of it mattered, and now, 20 years later, they’re still coming to watch me,” Luke said. “I’m so grateful for that. My mom probably sacrificed more than anybody for us. She had to accept that most of her weekends would be spent at track meets and plan everything around competitions for years. She’s been our greatest supporter. At this point, I tell her she doesn’t have to go anymore, but I still love looking over and seeing her in the stands.”

Luke expressed his gratitude not only to his family and Skubic, but also to all his coaches over the years, including Jamie Houston and Jon Pereiro, who coached him at Plainfield Central; his college coaches, Frank Gramaroso and Al Carius, who trained him alongside his dad; and Mark Turner of the Turner Method, who helps him with physical therapy and chiropractic health in his training.

“I need to thank all of them for all the support and opportunities they’ve given me through the years,” Luke said.