PLYMOUTH — Plymouth assistant track and field coach Ron Lee remembers the first time his son Derrick ever attempted the pole vault.
“When the state of Indiana opened up girls vaulting, the (Plymouth) coaching staff came to my daughter and asked her if she’d want to vault because she was a gymnast and gymnasts usually make pretty good vaulters,” he said. “We were out one Saturday and Derrick was out there — I don’t even know if he was a sixth-grader yet — but you know how those sibling rivalries are. She was struggling a little bit that day, and she goes ‘Well, you think it’s so easy, you do it,’ and that’s how he got hooked. He picked up the pole and in his very first attempt, he cleared nine foot. My daughter was upset.”
That first jump provided a glimmer of the remarkable vaulting career that was to be as Lee won his second straight Northern Lakes Conference championship in the vault Tuesday at Warsaw. The PHS senior was one of just two conference champions for Plymouth’s track teams, along with girls shot put champ Hannah Christy, and his winning vault of 14’06” beat out his nearest competitor by a full two feet.
“It’s always awesome to win the NLCs,” said Derrick. “It’s the people you compete against all year, and you finally get to put everybody together in one place and see who’s the best and how far people have progressed in the season. It’s a lot of fun.”
While he showed early promise in the pole vault, Lee’s repeat NLC championship was anything but predestined. In fact, he no-heighted in the event as a sophomore at the conference meet.
As is often the case with championship competitors, though, that defeat only pushed Lee to new heights. He works with Master’s division world record-holder Paul Babits in Fort Wayne in the off-season, competing as an individual during the indoor track season and even took some gymnastics classes to increase his body-awareness and balance.
“It was pretty much just a stepping stone,” said Lee of his sophomore showing at the NLCs. “You can’t be good all the time; you have to fail once in awhile to realize what you actually need to do. It was a stepping stone to where I am now. I was disappointed that I no-heighted, but I knew I could jump better… I just got back up and practiced some more. It motivates you to do better.”
Lee’s finish at the NLCs was impressive as he attempted to break his school record of 15’03” — a height he cleared at Warsaw but brushed the bar on the way down — but he’d already won the title with his first attempt.
With the state track series opening at next week’s sectionals, Lee recalls another no-height he’d like to reprise — the state meet’s opening height of 13’06”, which he failed to clear at Bloomington last year. With a mind toward that goal, Indiana’s fifth-ranked vaulter has been opening meets at the height this year to prepare his mind and body to clear it straight out of the gate.
“I no-heighted at state so I made it a goal to start at 13’06” most meets to get myself ready for that height, so when I get to state it’s not like a shocker,” said Lee.
“He’s one of the area’s best (vaulters) if not the best in the area, and he’s a kid that we really think will medal in Bloomington in the state finals,” said Plymouth head track and field coach John Barron. “There’s a lot that needs to happen before then, obviously, but he’s just a tremendous competitor. He vaults with a lot of confidence. All his hard work is starting to pay off, and I just hope for the best for him and that he goes as far as he can go.”
Although Lee’s best event is without a doubt the vault — he’ll join Division I Eastern Michigan’s vaulting corps next year — what sets him apart from most other vaulters is his talent on the track.
The senior has been Plymouth’s most consistent points-scorer throughout the season with top finishes in the hurdles, the 800 and the 400, where he placed fourth at conference Tuesday. If called on, he likely could have been the Pilgrims’ best distance runner on the track as well, as he’s already been setting the pace for Plymouth cross country the past two seasons.
While going from the track to the field and back to the track again is sometimes exhausting, Lee hardly complains. His coaches note his willingness to sacrifice for his team, even going so far as skipping out on the New Balance Nationals over the summer to train with Plymouth cross country leading up to the fall season.
“I enjoy running the 400. I love it, actually. The only thing I don’t like is the 800,” said Lee. “We do have a small team this year, and I’d like to see my team do well so I just run it and hope for the best. I train more for the vault than I do for anything else, but I train hard for that as well. If I’m going to end up doing it, then I might as well train hard to compete. That’s how I think about it.”