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Field Athlete of the Year: Erin Bahler's family legacy leads to record, higher goals

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It takes about 10 minutes into the gathering for the kicker: Erin Bahler and heights don’t necessarily mix.

Sure. OK. The Tri-County, technically senior at this point, has pole vaulted since matriculating to high school. Her participation began in the event because of older sisters Amber and Leandra, who followed each other to Lafayette Jefferson Regional meets in 2014 and 2015, respectively, each during their senior season.

Ten minutes into a sit-down about Erin’s junior-season accomplishments — amongst them tying the Tri-County pole vault school record at eight feet — she admits, like most younger siblings are wont to do, her foray into the vaulting world was because of her sisters’ example.

Then she adds a quote that her current head coach, Ryan Harrington, reacts to with a burst of laughter.

“I’m kind of scared of heights,” she laughed.

Wait. What? How does somebody who is “kind of scared of heights” wind up as a pole vaulter?

“I don’t know,” she said, before adding, “My older sisters did it. I just followed them.”

As Bahler smiles, Harrington holds his grin. All season long, he’s said Bahler is a well-rounded enough athlete to be placed in almost anything. The Cavaliers’ coach did it this year, pushing her toward the high jump for the first time in her career.

She started her track career as a distance runner — mirroring her cross-country upbringing and fall sport selection — but has turned into a short-distance runner, going from the 200 as a sophomore to the 400 as a junior.

Her foray into the high jump, where she teams with Sarah Walder, and her increased proficiency in hurtling herself over a bar several feet into the air is what earned her recognition as the 2019 White County Field Athlete of the Year.

“Look at the record board,” Harrington said. “She’s had sisters and cousins who have had a lot of success. It’s not easy, but like we’ve talked about all season long, Erin is one of the hardest workers we have. That hard work does pay off now that it’s all said and done.”

Bahler has four older sisters — Amber, Larissa, Leandra and Kenzie. Three — Amber, Larissa and Leandra — are scattered on the Tri-County track and field record board. So are multiple cousins. Looking at that board the last couple years, Erin felt left out.

Amber hit 7 feet, 6 inches multiple times, including both Benton Central Sectional appearances in 2013 and 2014. A year later, Leandra hit 7-6 in the sectional.

The record was 8-0, set by Kyra Hardebeck in 2010. Bahler’s secret is simple.

“I knew (our) record was not super-high and it could be mine, so that’s kind of kept me going,” she said. “I couldn’t let my sisters pass me up. It’s exciting — hopefully next year we can get my name (to be) the only one on the pole vault.”

While she hit 7-0 as a sophomore and placed third at the sectional, Bahler didn’t expect this year’s success: a win at the sectional and her first regional berth, and the record. Alongside, she placed fifth at the 400 in Benton Central and scored 14.75 points for the Cavaliers at the sectional, which included being a leg of the 1,600-meter relay team.

“Erin is such a great asset to our team,” classmate Sarah Walder said. “She is one that is always there to support and show up, physically and mentally. Whatever the coaches throw at her, she is willing to try it out and give it a go.”

Bahler reached 7-6, tying the PR’s of Amber and Leandra in a triangular against West Central and Covenant Christian. She equaled that mark at the Midwest Conference championship meet, placing second May 7.

Under the watchful eye of longtime Tri-County track and field mentor Dick Kochert a week later, Bahler and teammate Bella Cochran had an epic vault-off. Cochran hit a new personal-best of 7-6, equaling Bahler and pushing her to go for the school record. Kochert noted that day Bahler she is “free and easy” on anything under eight feet — she cleared 7-6 with inches to spare, and cleared eight by at least one.

“He’s helped a lot,” Bahler said of the Cavaliers’ local legend, who has coached at the

school for more than four decades and was recently inducted into the Indiana Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches Hall of Fame.

“He always has a lot of faith in me, and he always tells me that — even when I don’t (have faith in myself). Something like that is really helpful.”

Harrington ran for Kochert in both distance sports and became an assistant coach who took over as head coach in 2016. He praised Kochert, whose specialty in track is jumps and distance.

“We’re really lucky with pole vault, especially with coach Kochert,” Harrington said. “Experience-wise, he knows exactly what type of kid you’re looking for in that event. I can send a kid that’s interested in it to him — ‘OK,, go to coach Kochert, try out pole vault, see what you got.’ And (Kochert) can pretty well say ‘It’s worth continuing’ or ‘maybe they don’t quite have what it takes.’

“Obviously, Erin had what it takes, and she’s continued to show that.”

Harrington also noticed something, and went on a hunch. Bahler had a natural athleticism and body type, so he asked her to try high jumping toward the end of her sophomore season. This year, after a relatively full season, she registered 4-6 as a meet-best mark in five of six meets.

“Being a high jumper myself, I can say that she is a natural jumper,” Walder said. “Even if she doesn’t know 100 percent of what she is doing, she will always give it her best.”

Said Bahler of the two vertical-height events: “There are comparable skills. They’re kind of the same, but opposite, if that makes sense. You have to jump up and out in both, but different ways.”

Harrington has always attempted to give his athletes the best chance to succeed. In Bahler’s case, it took her from distance running as a freshman to the sprints on the track, and gave her two field events to conquer.

“You go back to her freshman year, and it was all distance,” he said. “She’s definitely been shuffled around a lot, and obviously, she’s very versatile. Just have to try her out in the throwing events, I guess, now.”

As Harrington joked, Bahler gave him a half-glare.

“I’m just trying to put her where she can have most success,” he said. “Obviously, that worked out pretty well this year.”

She doesn’t consider the pole vault conquered, perhaps not until her name is listed alone —“I want to add to the record as much as I can,” Bahler said.

What has also helped her is fearlessness developed even though heights really aren’t her thing.

“It is kind of fun being able to do something not everyone is able to do,” she said of soaring vertically. “Kinda takes a special person to want to do it.”