A host of elite pole vaulters from across the country will descend on Minneapolis for the Brit’s Pub Vault August 30. But for a few of them, Brit’s is as close to a home meet as exists in international competition.
Shawn Francis was a state champion vaulter for Hastings High School in 2004 before earning two Summit League Conference titles and qualifying for NCAA Regionals at North Dakota State University (where he also recorded the highest ever vault in the state of North Dakota). But you might say his biggest breakthrough was at the 2014 US Indoor Track & Field Championships, where he was runner-up.
As he pursues his Olympic dream in earnest, Francis maintains a seriously entertaining Vlog (link to https://www.youtube.com/user/ShawnFrancisVlog), runs Team Hoot, a group for post-collegiate athletes like himself, and writes training for young vaulters across the country.
He also, in a move that might turn some heads, moved back in with his parents while he chases his potential as a vaulter. But make no mistake: it was a move of choice, not necessity. And to Francis, the choice was simple: go where he has the right support, and do what he needs to to pursue his dream in earnest, because he won’t be able to do it forever.
We caught up with the very outgoing Francis to learn more about his ambitions, Team Hoot, and the life of a post-collegiate pole vaulter.
How does someone start pole vaulting? Is it an extreme sport thing?
I grew up where karate and snowboarding were my first loves. I was always climbing trees, jumping off roofs into snow banks…pretty much anything with a adrenaline rush is where I felt most comfortable. At the time I had a school counselor, Mr. Wheeler, my karate instructor John Townsend and an upperclassmen friend named “Memo” who tried to get me to do some school sports. They all sold me on pole vaulting as the craziest school sport out there. I tried it once and caught the pole vault and track & field bug.
Where do you live and train now?
At the moment I live and train out of Hastings, Minnesota! Hastings High School has been amazing in allowing me to use their facility to train.
My Masters is in health nutrition and exercise science and I even did my thesis on biomechanics of the pole vault. So I write all of my own training and 1-2 times a week I head to the University of Minnesota to work with Steve and Caroline White. I’ve said it 100 times, but apart, Caroline and Steve are two of the best coaches in the US, but when you combine them, they are one of the best pole vault teams in the world! I’m very fortunate to have the support system I do.
Ed. Note: Steve & Caroline White own and operate Flight Deck Athletics. Not only are they great pole vault coaches, but they have also been critical in helping us organize the Brit's Pub Vault. You can find out more about the services they provide on the Flight Deck Athletics website.
What is the life of a post-collegiate pole vaulter like? Is there a career in the works, and how does training and competing fit into that picture?
I can’t speak for every post collegiate athlete, but I had the mindset (and still do) that I have this small window of time to see what my potential is in pole vault and track and field. Each season that window gets smaller. So when I was contemplating the idea to pursue pole vault after I received my Masters Degree, I looked at the successful athletes in the sport and the struggling athletes in the sport.
I found the successful athletes 1) had a huge support system, 2) were able to put training first, and 30 stayed healthy. The struggling athletes were trying to work a part-time or full-time job and get training in when they could, which would lead to burnout or injuries. So I told myself that if I wanted to do this I wanted to do it right, all or nothing.
Is this when you decided to move back to Hastings?
I discussed this with my parents and they suggested moving back home to help with the finances. My old man was drafted to the Yankees in the 70s and before he could reach his potential an injury ended his career. My parents said they had this in their mind where my dad always wondered, what if? That hit me hard where I thought, I could take the conventional route where I get a job, find a girl and start a family. Society taught me that that’s what I’m supposed to do.
But instead I changed the way I look at the situation to this: I have a degree I can use later but I’ll never have this opportunity again. From then on it was an easy decision. I’ll do this until my progress starts going backwards. So far I’m only becoming more aware of my potential. It’s really exciting.
Do you train full-time? Or what other extracurriculars does the athletic life bring with it?
I cover finances by writing training for kids and teams all over the US and a few internationally. When the Vlogs took off the viewers started suggesting Team Hoot Merchandise, so I make a little bit of money doing that. The primary source of income is from working camps. Flight Deck Athletics has been amazing not only helping me pursue this journey financially, but giving me the chance to work with younger athletes, which reminds me why I’m doing this in the first place: it’s fun! It’s good for my soul for sure.
The track & field world is hard in America. You could be top 50 in the world and still make less per year than a high school kid working at McDonald’s. As I mentioned earlier, I took those three important criteria and created my own path with my circumstances instead of trying the old path so many post-collegiate athletes have gone down and failed. I’d be happy to potentially fail trying a new path, but so far it’s been successful and taken me all over the world and I’ve met some amazing people.
Tell us more about the Vlog, which is how much of the community know you. How did it get started? What do you use it for?
I was coaching the club team Nodak for five years and was a volunteer assistant coaching at NDSU for three years. Leaving these athletes was one of the hardest decisions of my life and the vlog originally was a way to keep in contact with them. It started to catch some steam within the pole vaulting community after a few months. From then on I started receiving e-mails from kids, athletes, parents and even people who just thought they were funny telling me that something in the vlog inspired them or motivated them to chase their dream. In one of the early vlogs I said “I don’t know what direction these will go or what they will be used for, but it will be fun watching them evolve”. We just passed 1,000 subscribers and are nearing in on 100,000 views over all. This blows my mind.
As of right now the vlogs are used for a few things. First, telling my story. Every week I just go out and tell my story, the good, bad and ugly. Second, it’s been a good journaling exercise for me. Any elite athlete will tell you that they are seldom satisfied whether its practice or competitions. But every Sunday I’m forced to look back at me week and every Sunday I go “huh, it wasn’t as bad of a week as I thought. Third, it’s helped me meet some amazing people all over the world. I’m pretty introverted at times find it hard to reach out for help or walk up to new people. The vlogs give me the opportunity to have a voice and I’ve met some amazing new friends along the way. Fourth and finally, I keep being told that they are inspiring and motivating people to chase their dreams. I love being able to help people and I get to do that. Sometimes it’s through vault technique, sports psychology, training, advice on college or high school, or at the very least it might make you laugh every week. It makes me feel good I can help others and promote our sport.
How did you find out about the Brit’s Pub Vault, and why did you decide to hop in?
I’ve been dreaming about jumping on a roof for a long time. I even submitted the idea to Red Bull a few years ago. TCTC and Jack Szamanda are crazy enough to make it happen. Jack started to asked me if I’d be interested and halfway through his sentence I said yes.
I’ve vaulted just about everywhere: streets, on, bridges, in malls, and on rivers, but never on a roof. I can’t wait to cross it off my bucket list. I’m not sure if Jack and TCTC know exactly how important this is for track & field. It’s promoting it in a way it’s never been done. They are track & field mavericks.
What’s your go-to pre-vault music?
I always have something fast playing on my iPod. The white stripes, the raconteurs, or anything punk rock is played while I’m warming up.
How do you relax when you’re not competing or training?
I’m too active for my own good. I got into skydiving a few years go and it’s been a good release from pole vault. I’m always doing something active with a hint of danger like mountain biking or wake boarding. I still find distance running to be scarier than pole vaulting or skydiving for that matter! You can’t beat watching a good movie every once and a while though.
Your author, like a lot of people reading this, is a distance runner who can’t really fathom propelling oneself many multiples of his own body height off the ground. What’s it like to be that high, suspended upside down? Is there a fear of falling?
Pole vault is a fear-based event which is why it’s fun to me! Running full speed with a stick where you have to take off on the runway at the exact sport or else you wreck your back or get shot back where you come from is scary! We aren’t even upside down yet.
For me pole vault is that puzzle you’ll never be able to solve and because of this it’s addictive. Another way to look at this question is, you don’t worry about falling, you look forward to it. The longer you get to fall the higher you’ve jumped! So the fall is the ultimate reward of all your hard work.
Submitted by Alex Kurt.