Ten years later, the former NCAA pole vault champion from the University of Tennessee remembers his gold-medal wininng effort at the 2004 Olympics like it was yesterday.
Mack was in Johnson City Saturday at the Tri-Cities Track Classic watching some of the high school athletes he works with. When asked about his Olympic record in Athens, Greece, he remembered standing on the starting line thinking he was about to capture a silver medal. While it would have been a great accomplishment, Mack had his sights set on another color.
“My e-mail address for four years was Gold, the letter n, and Athens at aol,” he said. “I thought I was going to get silver, but then I thought, ‘Your e-mail is gold in Athens, not silver in Athens.’ It totally got me back on track and it gave me a lot of confidence.”
After sprinting towards the pole vault bar, Mack planted his pole firmly on the ground. Once in the air, he bent the pole to a point where his 6-foot-2 frame was at a parallel angle with the ground below. Once the pole straightened, he was upside down before he flipped over and somehow cleared the bar at 5.95 meters (19 feet, 6 inches) to win the gold medal and set an Olympic record.”
While most people marvel at the physical feat it takes to soar nearly 20 feet in the air, Mack credited much of it to his mental state.
“The funny thing is it wasn’t my best jump of the day,” recalled Mack, now 41. “There was plenty wrong with it, but I was so focused on executing that my body self-corrected. Before I knew it, I was over it and was coming down.”
He had long been at the elite level, winning the SEC and NCAA indoor titles for the Vols in 1995. Still, he hadn’t achieved such a height in a major competition, although he had developed a reputation for coming through in the biggest moments.
After finishing eighth in the 2000 Olympic Trials, he won gold medals at both the 2001 Goodwill Games and the 2002 USA Indoor Track and Field Championships.
In the months prior to his Athens record, he hit 5.90 meters (19 feet, 33?4 inches) to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
“I had a personal best at the trials and I knew everything was there as long as I didn’t get in my own way,” he said. My coach and I had a very good rapport and a great plan. Everything came together at that time. I did a lot of sports psychology and focused on this is the moment it’s all going to come out. There are certain things in this sport you have to technically do correctly, but mentally, you have to be focused and ready to go.”
Mack’s Olympic record wasn’t his personal best.
That came at the 2004 IAAF World Athletics Final. He became a part of the exclusive “6 meters club” clearing 6.01 meters (19 feet, 8 inches).
While pole vault looks challenging, it is a relatively simple event to the untrained eye. Mack said, however, there’s much more to it than sprint, plant and vault. His mental preparation always went through the list of tasks he needed to execute.
“It took me a long time to figure it out,” Mack said. “It seems simple, but there are a lot of things you have to focus on. I would focus on it from the time I got on the pit until the time I took off. There were just brief moments when I didn’t focus on my cues.”
Today, Mack is back home in Knoxville where he works with elite athletes from across the Southeast. He closely advises several of the athletes around the Knoxville area, handing out encouragement Saturday to an Anderson County vaulter for a job well done.
“I coach elite pole vaulters and I do clinics for pole vaulters of all ages and grades,” he said. “They come in from all over the place for sessions. I did coach the U.S. national champion this year so it’s going really good. I would hate to think I’ve spend all this time trying to master a sport and not being able to share it. I thought I knew everything, but you always figure out different ways. I’m still trying to figure out who gets the most out of it, me or the kids.”