Before he finds his place in the real world in his chosen career, University of Akron pole vaulter Matt Ludwig has a couple of other stops to make.
Nothing major. World Championships. Olympics. Both are on his radar. However, he’s lucky that his sport is also giving him some practical use for his major in biomedical engineering. Yeah, what’s that? He’ll tell you.
“You're able to observe a movement and understand objectively what the best correction to that movement should be. And that's the first step, understanding how to improve the technique or what needs to get better,” Ludwig said last week before practice at the Stile Athletics Field House. “And then it becomes having what we call kinesthetic awareness, or body awareness, to be able to control your muscles and control your body to do the correction that you observed in the first place.”
Ludwig has been able to use his knowledge of biomechanics to his advantage, but calls it a taxing process primarily because it’s difficult to correct things that have become second nature, especially when it comes to athletes and muscle memory.
Specifically, he’s been able to correct overexaggeration in his form, but it doesn’t go much beyond that.
“But as far as the biomechanics, we don't do a ton of number crunching,” he said. “We'll look at some speed data and, maybe, just sort of my posture and looking at different angles in the jump, but realistically, it all has this certain flow and this certain look to the jump. And 99 percent of the time, we're able to observe all of that without the need for engineering.”
Even without that, he and coach Dennis Mitchell must be doing something right. If there’s such a thing as a whisperer in the pole vault, Mitchell might be that person after helping former Zips pole vaulter Shawn Barber to new heights. He’s the reason Ludwig, a Chardon native, eventually transferred to UA from Missouri.
Their success continues unabated. That includes all-American designations, player of the week awards and recognition from assorted publications. However, the proof comes in what’s done on the field and those successes have been eye-popping in recent weeks.
On Jan. 18, he set the No. 2 mark in the world of 18-8.75 (5.71m) to win the Elite Pole Vault at the National Pole Vault Summit in Reno, Nevada. A week later, he beat it and set a career-best, world-leading mark of 19-1.5 (5.83m) at the Akron-Kent State dual meet.
He didn’t get to savor the accomplishment for long. His mark was broken a week later.
“That's just how it works in the pole-vault world," he said. "Everyone’s inches, or centimeters, beats each other by a centimeter all the way up and regains the world lead and that just gets passed back and forth.”
That perspective allows him to keep his eyes focused on the big picture.
“[However], it's all fun and games, and it's great to be included in the game this early on at the world scale,” he said. “But the main goal is to be one of the main players in the game come championship season later on.”
Mitchell said the larger landscape should be the focus.
“He has shown he can play with all the big boys in the world now, that he can be out there and take them head-to-head,” he said, “and whether it takes some higher bar or takes competing a little better, he's shown that he can do that now.”
Taking on the big boys means taking a shot at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
“We’re trying to put him in a position to do that. The Olympic trials is an extremely rough situation, so not only do you have to be jumping well, you've got to jump and be in the top three,” Mitchell said. “All you need is one little mistake and you don't get to go.”
Ludwig said vaulting on the world level is different from doing so in other scenarios. It’s as much about mental toughness and strategy.
“Being well above that mark really doesn't matter because once you get to the U.S. Championships it's all about finishing in the top two or the top three places for World and Olympic games, respectively,” he said. “So it becomes who can compete on a given day to make a World team rather than who jumps the highest.”
Given the intelligence behind the athleticism, Ludwig should be in the conversation.
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.