Fly, ‘Hawk, fly

Record-setting pole vaulter aims for NCAA titles, Tokyo Olympics

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Zach Bradford
Zach Bradford. Photo by Steve Puppe.

Pulling your body up to, then falling from, more than 18 feet—over and over again for an entire afternoon—can’t possibly look easy, yet that’s exactly what Zach Bradford achieved last April when he burst onto the KU sports scene with a stunning Kansas Relays victory at Rock Chalk Park.

“With boyish zeal and brash ability,” in the breathless reporting shared in these pages, Bradford flew 18 feet, 11 inches, exceeding the World Championships’ qualifying standard and topping the KU record, 18-10.75, set in 1983 by vaulting legend Jeff Buckingham, j’84.

“Going into it, it was just another meet, just another chance to jump high,” Bradford recalled Feb. 7, one day before setting a new KU indoor mark, 18-8.75, at Nebraska. “But I didn’t think it was going to be that high. Pretty good tailwind, nice weather, big crowd. That helped.”

Even more than the height, though, Bradford, then a freshman in his first Kansas Relays, made it look … well, easy. For sure fun. And then comes a glance at his roster photo at kuathletics.com: one palm wrapped in tape, face flushed, arms raised in bruised and battered victory.

The boyish zeal of an MMA fighter?

“In the meet, you don’t seem tired because you’ve got that adrenalin rush, you’re flowing, everything feels good,” Bradford says, “but your body is definitely beat up. You feel it afterwards.”

Now a sophomore with sights set on Big 12 and NCAA indoor and outdoor titles, as well as the Tokyo Olympics, Bradford says the current indoor season was slow to develop because his body needed rest. Last season didn’t end until the first week in October, at the conclusion of the IAAF World Championships in Qatar. Bradford, then 19 and the youngest member of Team USA, placed 22nd in the world.

“I took that whole trip as a learning experience, having fun with it on and off the track, learning every little bit I can from the older athletes,” Bradford says. “I just had fun, kept a smile.”

He is now training toward the Olympics, but bars will be high: 18-10 to qualify for the U.S. trials, where he’ll have to place in the top three to make Team USA, and 19 feet to meet the Olympic standard.

Growing up in Bloomington, Illinois, Bradford shadowed his older brother, Steven, at practice, until fifth grade, when he picked up a pole and started jumping. He won back-to-back junior high championships, and as a freshman was already within 4 inches of Steven’s high school record when he told himself, “OK, I’m doing something right.”

But he did not win the state meet; in fact, he didn’t even qualify: “Is this something I want to do, or do I want to keep working at it and become the best?” Bradford did not lose another conference or state championship in his remaining three high school years, then leaped straight into Kansas Relays glory and even the World Championships.

Brash ability? Maybe not so breathless after all.

“He’s the real deal, there’s no doubt about it,” coach Tom Hays, d’90, said after the shocking Relays triumph. “He’s one of the U.S.’s best talents.”

As for that memorable afternoon, Bradford does correct the record: It was not easy. But, fun?

“How can it not be,” he answers with a laugh, “when you’re flying your body 18 feet in the air and you’re floating up there?”

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