Clemson University

Former Trojans star ready to vault to new heights at NCAA tourney

Former Northwestern star and current Clemson pole vaulter Mitch Greeley practices at Clemson.
Former Northwestern star and current Clemson pole vaulter Mitch Greeley practices at Clemson.

CLEMSON -- In one sense, becoming the most decorated pole vaulter in Clemson history did not come naturally for senior Mitch Greeley.

First, Greeley had to learn to draw with his left hand.

After shaving his thick, chest-length dreadlocks before arriving on campus, the former Northwestern standout sought another outlet for self-expression.

Having considered majoring in art, Greeley got a tattoo as a freshman and liked it so much that he bought a tattoo machine in order to try doing them himself.

There was just one minor setback -- he wanted to keep his tattoos in one spot. The initial tattoo was on his right arm, and Greeley is right-handed.

So he gathered some oranges and practiced tattooing left-handed before eventually putting a bird, heart and diamond around his right elbow.

"I've always had something that's made me different," Greeley said.

Pole vaulters are stereotyped as a different breed by nature, but Greeley sets the bar for eccentricity.

He rebuilt his first vehicle, a modest black Nissan pickup, into a crude, off-road monster he drives today. After a practice last week, he was to go jump off a local waterfall with friends.

As such, deviation from even the accepted vaulting norm has lifted him to the sport's upper tier.

Greeley, the ACC and east regional champ, enters this week's NCAA Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, with the nation's sixth-best vault at 17 feet, 10 inches. Rice sophomore Jason Colwick leads the way at 18-2.

The preliminary round will be held today, with at least the top 12 performers advancing to Friday's finals.

Greeley, who finished fourth last year with a 17-6.5, hardly fits in among his own athletic subculture.

A vaulter's take-off point varies depending on his size and the length of his vaulting pole. Few take off from within 12 feet of the bar/mat as a matter of physics.

But Greeley has little regard for that standard, much less consistently taking off from the same point each time.

His best indoor and outdoor jumps have occurred when he took off inside of 11 feet and contorted his way over the bar.

"He probably takes off closer than anybody in the country," event coach Josh Langley said. "The things that allows him to get away with that are his long arms and flexibility.

"A lot of pole vaulters feel if everything's not entirely right, they'll stop the run. Mitch is not like that. He just has sheer determination that I'm getting over that bar."

Once he graduates in December, Greeley plans to correct his technique when he moves to remote Jonesboro, Ark., to join the professional training stable of Earl Bell, a three-time Olympian.

At a USA Track & Field-sanctioned meet in Columbia last month, Greeley vaulted 18-3 to position himself for an invitation to the Olympic trials June 27-July 6 in Eugene, Ore. The top 24 marks get in, and Greeley's ranks among the top 20.

The story of how he found vaulting is nearly as peculiar as his character.

Greeley made hometown headlines as a youth for his competitive rock climbing.

When veteran local track coach Bob Jenkins saw Greeley at the pool his high school freshman year, Jenkins recommended Greeley give vaulting a try because the events used similar muscle groups.

By Greeley's account, he played around at track practice for two weeks because the vault coach, Bryan Squibbs -- dad to several close friends -- felt he did not need another vaulter.

That is, until Squibbs spotted Greeley doing backflips and pull-ups on the football goalposts and figured such elasticity could be harnessed.

Greeley went on to win three Class AAAA state titles and set the state record vault at 16-9.

"If you asked anybody else, they'd say I am a lot calmer than I used to be," Greeley said. "I've mellowed out a little bit."

Look no further than his arm for evidence.

Among the cluttered artwork: a crescent moon to represent the state of South Carolina; the state itself; and a dogwood flower -- because there were plenty around his home.

The tattoos have little meaning other than he liked their look.

"Mitch is really an intelligent man," Langley said, adding with a laugh, "but his hobbies make you question that intelligence sometimes."