Throughout the years, local high school pole vaulters have garnered plenty of attention for their accomplishments, their state titles, their state records. From Brant Bengen in 1982 to Kirsten Webber winning her third pole vaulting state title in 2015, the city of Bellingham has been a hotbed for pole vaulting talent.
Behind it all is one man.
Pole vaulting coach Rod Kammenga didn’t make headlines, he isn’t listed on Northwest Conference’s website or maxpreps.com, but he is nonetheless the reason behind all those accolades.
“He’s amazing,” Webber, his most recent success story, said in a phone interview. “He can take anyone who wants to vault and have them vault well.”
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But dusk has set on Kammenga’s 44-year coaching career.
The longtime coach, who spent a large chunk of his career at Bellingham before moving to Squalicum, has decided to retire after coaching athletes to 10 state titles, eight second-place finishes and another handful or two of third-places as well as getting inducted into the Washington State Track and Field Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Since high school Kammenga knew he wanted to coach.
“I went into education for the fact I wanted to coach at the high-school level,” Kammenga said in a phone interview. “It’s always been a passion of mine, something I’ve always been interested in and I thought I did pretty well.”
The results certainly back up that final notion.
Since his first state champion — Brant Bengen in 1982 — Kammenga’s longest drought without a title holder was seven years. Two of his athletes hold state meet records — Sam Sampson’s 2007 vault of 16 feet, 2 inches and Webber’s 2015 vault of 13-03. He also had two athletes win multiple championships — Webber and Tyler DeFries (1995, 1996)
“I wouldn’t have changed anything,” Kammenga said. “I had a lot great kids to work with and that was very rewarding.”
While success was consistent for Kammenga, his coaching style was not.
In 44 years Kammenga learned plenty about the sport and about how to mold players. His coaching evolved with the knowledge.
Early in his career, Kammenga was demanding with a hard shell. By the end, he could be described as “grandpa-like.”
He never stopped asking his athletes to perform to the best of their abilities but he learned how to be supportive of their interests as well.
“I think you gain that perspective that you can be successful and be demanding but still be able to get along with the kids and understand their viewpoints, too,” Kammenga said.
That isn’t to say Kammenga gave in to the students.
“The kids’ opinions were important,” Kammenga said. “At the same time, I always did things my way, because I thought my way was the right way. I told them if they listened well and did the things I instructed, they’d be successful.”
With Kammenga’s pedigree, they’d certainly be wise to follow his instruction, of which he did an excellent job of communicating.
“He tells you what to do and you’re supposed to do it. For me, I loved that,” Webber said. “I would do something he would tell me and I would know it was right.”
It didn’t always have to be vocal communication either. Before coaches were allowed to talk to their athletes at events, Kammenga learned how to tell an athlete to do something via hand signals. He continued to instruct with non-verbal communication long after the rules changed and into his final year.
“He would just use hand motions,” Webber said. “One signal and you would know what it was for. It was really cool to be at the end of the runway and he would do something and you would know.”
His hand signals to Webber even became the team joke. One of Webber’s few flaws was failing to get her bottom arm up on the plant. If she got it right, Kammenga would put his arm straight up. If she failed to do so, Kammenga’s arm would be bent in front of his face. The whole team started following suit on Webber’s jumps.
The other big assist Kammenga became known for was calming athletes down for state meets. For Webber, 2013’s state meet best describes the coaching skill of Kammenga.
Webber was dealing with a hip injury. It would be the only year she missed out on a state title in her Squalicum career. Still, she views it as one of Kammenga’s greatest successes.
“He was really encouraging, just telling me ‘It’s OK, just have fun. It’s state; its not a big deal,’” Webber said. “He believed I could do it even though I wasn’t sure I was able to walk.”
Webber still took second place, one of Kammenga’s most memorable moments.
“She was hurt and pole vault is not a 70-percent event,” Kammenga said. “To be able to take second after being in that position was really rewarding for me.”
Kammenga’s memories are too many to count, but he will carry them with him forever and his teachings are sure to stick with his athletes as well.
“He’s helped me grow so much. I always look forward to track season,” Webber said. “It was amazing to have him for four years.”
Rod Kammenga Pole Vault State Champions