How Bryce Barkdull transformed into record-breaking, state-champion pole vaulter

The common assumption about Bryce Barkdull is that he has always been a gifted pole vaulter who has been jumping his whole life in a pole-vault pit in his backyard.

It would make sense given that his father, Ryan, was a Hall-of-Fame pole vaulter for Wichita State and Bryce currently has the No. 1 high school mark in the country, a 17-foot-9 clearance that doubles as the best pole-vault mark in Kansas history.

But the truth is three years ago, Bryce was pudgy, played offensive line for the freshman football team and had never picked up a pole vault.

“I look at my old film all the time and wonder how I got here,” Bryce said. “It’s such a huge transformation. I’m confused about it until I realize how much hard work I’ve put in. Not taking summers off. Always doing one more rep. It all added up.”

Bryce concluded an all-time career at the Kansas high school track and field state meet at Cessna Stadium on Friday, winning his second straight Class 5A title in the pole vault and breaking his own meet record by clearing 17-2.

He is one of just five high school vaulters in the history of the state to clear 17 feet, while his 17-2 mark on Friday cemented his spot as the best clearance, regardless of class, at the state meet.

“When he started out his freshman year, he just decided that’s what he was going to do,” Ryan Barkdull said. “He watched and learned and studied the physics of it. He broke it down to micro moments. ‘What’s my wrist doing? What’s my ankle doing? What’s my knee doing?’ He focused on the little things and got bigger, stronger and faster and figured it out.”

But before he could soar nearly 18 feet in the air, Bryce had to endure failure after failure and learn from it.

Denis Fraizer, who first began working with him at Shocker Track Club, chuckled when asked about his first impression of the 14-year-old kid who would go on to become the greatest pole vaulter in Kansas history.

“He was stiff and awkward, just didn’t look good,” Fraizer said. “You looked at him and said, ‘This kid is never going to jump 14 feet ever.’”

Bryce was undeterred by his slow start in pole vault. He started logging four-hour workouts between lifting, running and technical work. He started watching film, studying technique and obsessing over any tiny detail that he thought could make him go an inch higher.

“It’s just so addicting,” Bryce said. “I think all vaulters are adrenaline junkies, so this was my way of channeling that into something productive. I just love chasing the adrenaline rush.”

He was determined to make pole vault “his thing,” a way to stand out from the shadow of his older brother, Ashton, who was a football and track star. The plan didn’t last long.

Once Ashton saw Bryce give pole vault a try, the older brother picked it up and was immediately better at it. Ashton won two state titles in pole vault and broke the state-meet record at the time in his senior year, as Bryce finished runner-up to him in 2022.

“My brother has always been better than me at basically everything, including pole vault when he was in high school,” Bryce said. “He’s always been a huge motivator for me.”

While Ashton has blossomed in pole vault (with the same personal-best of 17-9) at the University of Kansas, where his younger brother plans to follow him, Bryce has gone considerably higher in high school.

After dedicating himself for four straight years to become a better pole vaulter, Bryce has reaped the rewards of his work hard. He started his freshman year by clearing 12 feet and was consistently over 17 feet this season. His father, a former All-American who cleared 18-6½ during his career, believes Bryce is a future 18-footer at his current trajectory.

“The thing about pole vault is that it’s all about time spent,” Ryan said. “The more times you get on the runway, the more attempts you get, you start pushing bigger poles and you start jumping higher. You have to pay your dues. And he’s doing that.”

Bryce was hoping to improve his PR on Friday, sliding the bar to 17-10 after making the meet-record clearance of 17-2 look effortless. It didn’t work out, as Bryce bailed on two of his three attempts and hit the bar on the other.

He will have more chances at higher-profile events later this summer, such as the Nike national championship meet in Eugene, Oregon, but there is something undeniable about competing at Cessna Stadium, where his father has a mural recognizing his accomplishments.

The crowd has come to embrace the Barkdull brothers, as their record-setting attempts always stop the events on the track and avert all eyes at Cessna Stadium to the pole vault pit. It’s a feeling Bryce said he will never forget.

“This one means so much to me, honestly,” Bryce said. “The crowd is just electric. I love the energy here so much and I just love this meet. I’ll miss it.”