'Why run when you can fly': Mitchell's Carter Harris aims to be Kernels' next pole vaulting standout

Apr. 17—MITCHELL — Most high schoolers don't determine the best way to get a varsity letter is by flinging themselves upside down several feet in the air.

So right there, Mitchell senior Carter Harris is different.

After a quest to reach varsity status in the throwing events didn't pan out his freshman year, Harris saw there was nobody on the pole vault team, and joined the sport as a sophomore to ensure he wasn't sent to JV meets.

Needless to say, the decision has worked out quite well.

Harris has steadily become a solid vaulter, finishing ninth in Class AA at the state championships last year. He's hoping for another strong season, all while helping pole vault coach Jordan McKean regrow the school's pole vaulting prowess.

"Pole vault didn't really have anybody, and thought it would be an easy way to go out and get a varsity letter," Harris said. "But ended up sticking with it and here we are."

Asked what his strategy is when entering a competition, Harris' answer is as straightforward as possible.

"Just get over the bar," he said. "Anyway it's possible. Just as long as you're over, it counts."

But in a sport where the best athletes hoist themselves up to new heights — Harris' personal best is 13 feet, 3.25 inches, which is higher than the top of the backboard on a basketball hoop — getting over the bar is far from simple.

When he started, Harris quickly shook off any fears he had about the sport, and managed to get the basic form down. Since, he's been trying to perfect his craft, by working out on DWU's indoor mat during the winter, and practicing every minute detail.

Right now, Harris and coach McKean are working on "punching" his left arm out when he vaults, so he can "go deeper in the pit," or land further into the padding to ensure he gets over the bar.

"One of the best things that makes Carter a good pole vaulter is he's very coachable," McKean said. "When you want him to make an adjustment, you want him to try and change something, he's typically eager to try it, and he's not too timid and too shy to get after it."

Harris' willingness to go for it was on display at the Corn Palace Relays on April 13. Despite dealing with some back pain, the senior opted to compete, knowing it was one of his last chances in his home stadium. And he went and won it outright.

"Throughout the meet I ended up getting better. I felt dialed in after a little bit and my goal was to come out and win," Harris said.

High school graduation is fast approaching for Harris, who will continue to vault at Dakota Wesleyan, where both of his parents attended college.

But the senior still has work to do.

He earned his personal best at the indoor DWU high school open on March 28. In the outdoor season, his best vault is 12 feet, 9 inches, which he got at the Brandon Triangular. It stands as the 11th-best mark in the state. More improvement can move Harris into the Kernels' top-10 for the event in school history.

But Harris has also begun vaulting off a heavier pole, and is hoping that will help propel him to greater heights.

"I want to place in the top-four at state, that's the ultimate goal," Harris said. "Maybe even place at the (Dakota Relays)."

McKean, a former baseball player at Parkston, did not pole vault in high school.

But the sport piqued his interest three years ago, and he taught himself how to do it, and landed the gig as Mitchell's pole vault coach for the 2022 season.

His arrival on the track and field staff ended the program's four-year drought without a pole vault coach, filling the void Travis Carpenter had left after the 2017 season.

"Through the help of some super friendly ESD coaches, and Travis Carpenter, him coming around to help me out, it's led to some success with this," McKean said. "But honestly, I can't say enough. It really is the athletes."

McKean admits the four-year hiatus has impacted the perception of pole vault at the school. Many kids on the track and field team don't know what it is, or when asked if they're interested in trying it, respond, "Oh, it sounds scary."

But Harris is beginning to set a precedent. This season, there are three other Mitchell track and field athletes who have vaulted: Dawson Schroeder and Max Hart on the boys side, joining Aubrey Gelderman, who is herself in the Kernel all-time top-10 in the event.

Perhaps the best pitch for getting more kids to join is Harris' answer to why he loves sport.

"I guess the feeling when you're up in the air, you don't really feel anything but you just know that you're flying," Harris said. "Why run when you can fly?"