Pole vaulting and creation
Jonathan Sarfati chats with pole vaulting champion, Scott Huffman
Scott Huffman is a three-time USA pole vaulting champion, who set a USA record of 5.97 metres (19 feet 7 inches) in 1994, third best in the world at the time. (Only 18 men have ever jumped 6 m or higher.) In 1996, he represented the USA at the Centennial Olympics in Atlanta, and later that year won competitions in Sestriere (Italy) and Linz (Austria). In official world championships, Scott finished 5th in 1993 (equal third-best height) and 6th in 1995. Scott lives in Kansas with his wife and five children.
It is not every day that a CMI speaker finds that a ministry tour has been organized by a world-class athlete. But this is exactly what happened in Kansas in late 2014. Scott Huffman turned out to be a former world leader in his athletic specialty of pole vaulting.
So I had to ask why Scott chose this field. He explained he was inspired by his father, Galen Huffman, who was an accomplished pole vaulter back in the late 1950s/early 1960s. He held the high school boys’ State record in Missouri and went on to break the school record at his college, which lasted for over a decade.
Scott started in pole vaulting during 7th grade. But as a skilled all-round athlete, who has been clocked at 4.36 seconds in a fully automatically timed 40 yard (36.6 m) dash, he also liked football and running track, as his father also did. However, he had not intended to compete in pole vaulting past college. “My ultimate dream was to play in the NFL, for the Minnesota Vikings in particular. But God made me 5′9″ [175 cm] and 165 pounds [75 kg], which isn’t exactly NFL size. So I decided in college to focus solely on track and field. I was fortunate enough at the college level to learn from one of the most knowledgeable coaches in the world. After college I continued to improve, reaching a level that actually allowed me to earn a comfortable living competing abroad against the best in the world.”
The science of successful pole vaulting
However, how could he compete with pole vaulters much taller than he is? This is a real disadvantage, as Scott explains:
“A taller athlete can grip much higher on the pole, so it’s definitely a disadvantage being short in the pole vault. As a professional I often competed against one South African who stood 6′6″ [198 cm], two Russians who were at least 6′8″ [203 cm], and a Polish vaulter who was 6′9″ [206 cm]. The average size of a world-class vaulter is somewhere around 6′2″ [188 cm] and 180 pounds [82kg].”
However, Scott had the advantage of great speed, as above, and became one of the fastest pole vaulters in history, clocking 10 m/s (22 mph) on the runway. This is a real advantage: “The faster a vaulter runs down the runway, the more energy he can store in the pole as he sprints into the takeoff and begins to bend the pole. As the pole straightens, it releases this energy, and it shoots the vaulter vertically upward. So a smaller, lighter guy gets more upward ‘thrust’ out of the pole, which can make up for the lack of physical height at takeoff. I also had the distinct advantage of being very gymnastic and flexible, which allowed me to clear bars from positions that no one else would even attempt.”
Indeed, Scott sometimes would use a one-legged straddle to clear the bar, and the technique is now often called the ‘Huffman Roll’. His speed and technique made him one of the best in the world:
“I won three US championships and held the American record (19′7″) for two years. I also competed in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and I retired from professional competition two years later at the age of 33. But more gratifying than these athletic achievements were the experiences I had and friendships I made in those years. For almost a decade, I was lucky enough to compete in over 30 countries on four continents. I met some amazing, wonderful people around the world, many of whom I’m still friends with today.”
Since I met Scott at a Christian event, the question came up about how he became a Christian. Fortunately, one of the greatest gifts God can give someone is being raised in a godly family, as he explains:
“I’ve been a Christian as long as I can remember. I was born into a loving, Christian family and I grew up being taught the Bible. My Grandpa Huffman, whose father was a minister, taught me at a young age that the Bible was the very Word of God. He said it should never be covered by another book or even a piece of paper. Another of my ancestors was the German reformer Alexander Mack (1679–1735), who was a co-founder and the first minister of the Schwartzenau Baptist Church, now known in America as the German Baptist Church.”
Apologetics: defending the faith
However, like so many western Christians, for a long time, Scott believed in Christianity but didn’t see the need to defend it. But in recent years, thanks to good mentors, he has seen the importance of this. He likes what Christian philosopher J.P Moreland points out: that a person’s spiritual practices have got to be guided by a conviction that what he or she believes is actually true:
“Strength of belief comes from two sources: first, by honestly facing challenges and objections to your faith, and then finding answers and good evidences supporting what you believe, in order to assure yourself that your belief can hold water. Second, by asking God in prayer to strengthen your faith, and to bless you with wisdom and discernment. There’s a great prayer in Mark 9:24 I often prayed as my late first wife was battling breast cancer: ‘I believe—help my unbelief!’”
Scott came to realize that an apologist can’t reasonably escape from the correct understanding of Genesis. He makes it clear that ‘young-earth’ creation is not essential for salvation, but it is essential for consistency. Scott was struck by Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12):
“His words clearly communicate that we are to trust God’s Word as infallible and inerrant, not just in spiritual things, but even when it mentions history and the universe. And according to John 1:1, He was there in the beginning. As such, His first work was to speak the entire universe and all it contains into existence in six literal days.”
For Christians who question the time frame, Scott says:
“I imagine coming face to face with God in Heaven and asking Him, ‘Please tell me plainly Lord—how exactly did You create the universe, and exactly how long did it take?’ I’m immediately ashamed to even consider asking this question, as I recall how many times Christ responded to such questions by saying, ‘Have you not read …?’ He’s already given us the answer. Why don’t we trust it? And how consistent are we to say we ‘trust Jesus’ and the Gospel, yet doubt the accuracy of the Genesis creation story, or the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11?”
Also, it’s hard to share one’s faith if we don’t really have confidence that the Bible is true from the beginning, as Scott knows only too well. However, creation apologetics has been most helpful:
“As I’ve studied the incredible body of evidence from the different scientific disciplines supporting the biblical accounts of creation and Noah’s flood, my faith has grown by leaps and bounds. I’m now excited to be a Christian, and I want to share these things with other Christians to encourage them in their faith. It’s actually become a passion for me to talk about being a Christian.”
Advice for young Christian athletes
Scott strongly advises a proper Christian humility:
“I think it’s important for an athlete to remember the story of Jesus healing the blind man in John 9. Jesus’ disciples asked whose sin caused the man to be blind—was it his parents’ sin or that of the blind man himself? Jesus’ response was that the reason for the man’s blindness wasn’t because of someone’s sin, ‘but that the works of God might be displayed in him’ (John 9:3). How often do we think something bad happening is due to something bad we did? We tend to think it’s all about us. We also seem to think that when we are gifted athletically, or when we do something amazing, that it’s because God is blessing us for being ‘good’.
“But it’s not about us. God didn’t make me an Olympic athlete because I was deserving any more than my younger brother Eric ‘deserved’ to be born brain damaged and severely autistic. Somehow, God ordained us both to be how we are, in order that He would be glorified. We don’t always see how that works out, but it’s not our plan, it’s His plan. It’s a humbling perspective.”
Not only that, the humble Christian athlete should not simply make a gesture of thanking God after a success, but also:
“Be prepared to patiently and kindly share the Gospel to those God places in your path. God places us all in unique ministry opportunities. And athletics is a unique ministry opportunity. You don’t need to be a pastor or attend seminary to be holy. You can be holy and be a witness where He places you, whether it’s in the weight room or on a bus travelling to basketball game.”