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Northwestern pole vaulter is best in the state

Kimberleigh Riggs sets the bar high. It's a strategy that has taken her to new heights.

Riggs is a Northwestern pole vaulter, the best in the state and one of the best in the nation. Last week at a meet against York, Riggs cleared 13 feet, a height no other girls vaulter in state history has ever reached. The vault also ranks as the fourth-best in the country this year by a girl.

And to think. It almost didn't happen

Riggs is also an accomplished gymnast and competes for Thomas Gymnastics in Rock Hill. Two Saturdays ago she won the vault and was second in the long jump at a meet in Anderson. After she finished her events, Riggs jumped in the car with her dad, Brain Riggs, and they burned some rubber getting to Florence in time for her to compete in a regional gymnastics competition.

She was first in the floor, vault, all-around categories and was the top national qualifier for her age group. All in one day, but nothing unusual for Riggs, who has a full plate. Riggs is a 3.8 student, plays lead trumpet in Northwestern's Purple Regiment band and is president of the school's Forensic Science Club.

"I never intended to be on the track team; thought I'd go to college as a gymnast,'' Riggs said. "My freshman year we were on the track for PE class and I was tumbling. Coach (Calvin) Hudgins saw me and told me I should come out for track and pole vault.

"He put me with a couple of boy vaulters, Charlie Snipes and Todd Hardy, and told them to teach me how to hold the pole. We started off jumping in the grass, but before practice was over I was comfortable enough to join the other vaulters at the pit. I'm a quick learner. Now when I vault, I can tell right away if I'm in control mentally and where my energy level is.''

Riggs said it was "awesome'' when she was told to join the others at the pad and that her mind was in "total chaos.''

Vaulters are allowed to run through if not satisfied with an approach and it doesn't count as an attempt if the plain of the pit isn't broken. That's why you will see vaulters leaving the runway and running to either side if they do not feel confident.

"You can tell when a vault is not going to be good,'' Riggs said. "Vaulters normally know when they have an off plant. When that happens the best thing is to pull up. You can't panic and go ahead with the jump.''

Most days, both factors are in check. Riggs has won the Class AAAA state championship two straight years. Her 13-0 mark broke the mark of 12-8 held by Greenville's Sandy Morris, last year's Class AAA state champion. Riggs' vault is not a state record. It's the best in the state this season. State records can only be set at the state meet, and Riggs has her sights on topping the record of 12-5.25 set by Thornwell's Sara Young in the 2003 Class A state meet.

Riggs and he dad have a strategy that allows her to rest and get up her concentration level before she takes her first jump. While the other vaulters are competing starting at a lower height, Riggs doesn't begin until the bar is moved to between 10-6 and 11 feet. It's gamble because vaulters have three tries to stay in the competition. Not making it hasn't been a problem for Riggs.

"Kimberleigh is comfortable starting at 11 feet,'' Brian Riggs said. "But there are times when we play the match game. She will pick a spot where she wants to jump, then drop back in increments of five to start. It's a good strategy for her because she tends to get a little aggressive.

"That's what happened at York. She made 10-6 easily, then had to jump three times to clear 11-6. She made 12-6 on her first try, then made 13. I believe that if she hadn't had to make three attempts at 11-6, then 13-3 might have happened. She missed all three jumps.''

Riggs jumps with a 13-foot pole. The goal, she said to jump the same height as the pole is long. With that accomplished, Riggs is considering switching to a 14-foot pole, which will require some adjustments, Riggs was awkward using the 13-foot pole and missed on her first attempt with it before reaching a comfort zone.

But she has decided to give it a try and hopes to get started this week.

Pole vaulting became a girls track event in 1998. It has grown as far as better heights and the number of girls involved.

Northwestern's Mitch Greeley, who won three state championships and starred at Clemson,is in training in Arkansas with hopes of earning a spot on the USA's Summer Olympic team for the 2012 games in London, England.

Riggs said competing in the Olympics is one of her long-range goals, but first she has some unfinished business

Her list includes breaking the state record, winning a third straight state championship and "hopefully shatter'' the girls' national record of 14-2 by Mary Saxer of Landover, Md. in 2005. She has six meets, the Region 3-AAAA meet, the state qualifying meet and the state meet remaining to meet them.

And there's a matter of deciding where to attend college. Riggs said she has offers on the table from South Carolina, Western Carolina and Appalachian State. Tennessee and North Carolina have jumped into the sweepstakes but have not yet made offers.

Riggs trains under Brian Squibbs, South Pointe's vaulting coach, who has open sessions for vaulters from around the area regardless of which school he or she attends. Squibbs is recognized by the state's coaches as one of the best in his field. He coaches Greeley. All four of his sons learned under him. Brett is sophomore at South Pointe and broke the school record set by his brother, Terry, last season with a 15-3. Terry, a freshman at USC Upstate, has topped 14-7 this season

"I was impressed with Kimberleigh's gymnastics skill and the fact that she had no fear when we first met,'' Squibbs said.

"I knew right away we had something to work with. The thing about Kimberleigh is that she can be better.

"We are working on the top of her vault. That's what was keeping her back from breaking 13 feet. She was coming free too early and not getting vertical. But she's getting there. She showed that last week.''