If the words "pole vaulting" don't inspire fear in you, they should. That's the upshot of a Vice article about the sport, which succinctly expresses why: "At 20 feet, a pole vault accident is like someone falling off the roof of their house, while running as fast at they can with a thick pole in their hands." If that sounds like a brush with death, it quite literally can be: A 2001 study analyzed the 32 catastrophic pole-vault injuries that were reported to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research between 1982 and 1998; half the accidents resulted in death, and 6 in permanent disabilities. A follow-up study published in 2012 noted that one safety-related change made in 2003 was an expansion of the landing pad's minimum dimensions. In the 8 years that followed, the study noted only two of the 19 catastrophic injuries were fatal.
But the rest weren't pretty: major head injuries and spine or pelvic fractures were among them. And a study of collegiate pole vaulters published this last January found 41% sustained some kind of injury, a figure that researchers saw as suggestive of the fact that "injuries are very common in experienced vaulters." The injury stats aren't good, and the potential pay and fame aren't much better. So why the heck do it? Vice talked to US record-holder Brad Walker (one of 18 men to ever clear 6 meters), who sums up vaulters as "risk-takers, usually with something to prove to themselves ... you won't find a vaulter jumping high who doesn't have at least one screw loose." As for why they stay with it, Vice points to its highly technical and challenging nature: As you approach the box you're a sprinter; then you're a gymnast. Walker says you need "significant body control and spatial awareness," too. (Read more sports stories.)