Jeff Sahli never won a state championship in the pole vault, but he has influenced many others who have.
Sahli, who has worked with vaulters from all across the northeast region of South Dakota, is stepping away from his coaching duties at Aberdeen Roncalli. He previously coached at Aberdeen Central and Northern State.
“My wife has finally retired. Our boys both live about 15 hours away. We’ve got grandkids now,” Sahli said. “We just want to spend more time with the family.”
Sahli has quite the extended family. Known by some as the Father of Pole Vault in South Dakota, Sahli has spent the better part of the past three decades helping athletes soar to new heights in the event. While he dabbled in the vault while growing up, a real opportunity presented itself when Gene Brownell became the girls’ track and field coach at Aberdeen Central.
“He said we can’t afford to give up points if we plan to be a contender in the ESD (Eastern South Dakota Conference) or the state,” Sahli said.
Sahli, who was the vault coach at Holgate Middle School at the time, soon began to grow the Central program. He started working with fifth and sixth-grade boys who lived in his neighborhood that would eventually become the cornerstone of Golden Eagles pole vaulting: names like Tony Hermes, Josh Rife and Jesse Johnson.
“They were all a couple of houses away from me,” Sahli said. “I would call up and say, ‘I’m heading out to the track,’ and these guys would come running. We built that excitement into it.”
Sahli said that Central was the first program in the state to use helmets as a safety measure when vaulting. The first models were actually bike helmets.
“They didn’t have pole vaulting helmets,” Sahli said. “They really didn’t have skateboarding helmets at that time.”
The helmets weren’t the only pioneer efforts of Sahli. In 1996, Central tried something no one else had done: allow a female to pole vault.
“We started the girls’ pole vaulting program pretty much in the State of South Dakota and the nation,” Sahli said.
The girl was Stacie Janish, who was the only female in the country to vault in an organized competition.
“For the first year, she would come to all the pole vaulting and she would jump as exhibition. We were showing that females could pole vault,” Sahli said. “She set a record in 1996 with a vault of 9 feet. For one year she had the national record of 9 feet. We kind of got it going.”
Soon Sahli began working with athletes from all across the region. He said there were a variety of reasons why vaulters would come to the Hub City from as far as 100 miles away to practice. Part of it was the cost of doing the pole vault and part of it was a lack of coaches at smaller schools.
“Central and Roncalli, came up with the same philosophy. You have to have an individual there all the time,” Sahli said. “There is always a potential of being injured. It’s tougher on some of the smaller schools where they don’t have the number of coaches.”
Of course, once word got out about Sahli’s knowledge of the event, future state champions began showing up on a regular basis: vaulters like Justin Birchem from Hoven and Sam Pribyl of Webster to name just a couple.
“Pole vaulting becomes a family. It really does. The kids help one another,” Sahli said. “They’re constantly pushing themselves, because they don’t want somebody to out-best them, so practice becomes competition.”
Sahli said many individuals came at the close of the season to make some last-minute adjustments before the state meet.
“A lot of the kids that came, they always came towards the end of the season,” Sahli said. “They just needed to kind of be tweaked a little bit. They needed to have just a few things corrected before they went into their conference or state meet.”
Sahli was never afraid to share information and athletes from a variety of schools would seek him out, sometimes to the dismay of those he routinely worked with.
“Every once in a while, in big competitions, some of my vaulters would go, ‘Coach, stop coaching these kids, we want to win,’ ” Sahli said.
Some of it was mental advice and a lot of it was technical guidance, from choosing the right pole to understanding how to use it.
Along the way, Sahli learned a few things about vaulting himself.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way and learned from them,” he said.
Sahli recalled many summers being filled by providing pole vaulting opportunities for those who wanted to compete.
“We would load up vans in the summer time and take our family vacations going to national track meets,” Sahli said, “sometimes 2-3 vans full of vaulters and families.”
Travels took them to places like New Orleans, Orlando, Chicago and Detroit.
Now, after more than 30 years of guiding pole vaulters from across the area, Sahli is turning over the coaching reigns to people who will share some of the same things they learned from him.
“It’s funny how many ex-pole vaulters of mine are out there coaching now,” Sahli said.
While Sahli plans to spend more time with his family, don’t be a bit surprised to see him at a meet or two in the future. And don’t be a bit surprised to see an athlete or two come running over for advice.
“I will miss it. My wife is not going to want to hear this, there’s a good chance I will show up at practices,” Sahli said. “I know I’ll show up at meets and stuff like that. It will be difficult (leaving), but we have to spend a little time with our own family, too.”
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