Penn State contributes to first pole vault-specific helmet, new safety measure

November 04, 2004

University Park, Pa. -- Two products designed to dramatically improve the safety for competitors in the sport of pole vaulting have recently been introduced in the marketplace.

The first pole vault specific helmet and a soft planting box are now available for competitors in the sport worldwide. Both products were created and designed with input from Ed Dare and Penn State intercollegiate athletics.

The Dare family and Penn State have been at the forefront of several pole vault safety initiatives during the 2 3/4 years since the death of Nittany Lion pole vaulter Kevin Dare, Ed's son, at the 2002 Big Ten Indoor Track and Field Championships.

The KDMax Pole Vault Helmet was designed through a partnership between Dare, Penn State athletics and Enventys. A sport specific helmet for the pole vault event previously did not exist. Numerous pole vaulters, coaches, doctors and trainers were consulted throughout the design and prototype testing phases of the project.

The University's College of Health and Human Development's Biomechanics Lab assisted in testing the prototype design for more than a year and the pole vault specific helmet is now available in the marketplace exclusively at www.PoleVaultHelmet.com.

A dramatically safer pole vaulting planting box, SOFT BOX, recently was certified by the international track and field organization, IAAF. The SOFT Box was developed through a partnership between Ed Dare, Penn State athletics and SKYDEX Technologies, Inc. Penn State was the first customer to install the SOFT BOX in its indoor and outdoor pole vault competition sites.

Kevin Dare, a sophomore from State College, died while competing in the pole vault at the Big Ten Indoor Track and Field Championships on February 23, 2002 in Minneapolis. Three high school pole vaulters also died while competing in the event in 2002, all as a result of head injuries. There were at least 17 deaths and more than 30 serious injuries among high school and collegiate pole vaulters from 1983-2002, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Shortly after Dare's accident, Tim Curley, Penn State director of athletics, and Ed Dare began discussions on improving the safety of the sport with coaches and administrators from the Big Ten, NCAA, USA Track and Field and the United States Track and Field Coaches' Association, as well as the PIAA, National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the American Society for Testing and Measurements (ASTM) pole vault subcommittee and companies that produce pole vault equipment.

Numerous safety initiatives have been implemented during the past 2 3/4 years, with the availability of a pole vault specific helmet and a soft planting box significant steps forward in making the event safer. Six state high school athletic associations require the use of a helmet in the pole vault event: Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota and Wisconsin. Many other states have legislation that will require the use of a helmet now that a pole vault specific helmet is available in the marketplace.

The KDMax helmet is designed with the vaulter in mind and is affordably priced. The carbon and e-glass composite shell provide the stiffness and strength while an EPP liner provides the impact protection while weighing only 500 grams (1.1 pounds).

The stiffness of the carbon fiber shell is able to best spread the load of an impact to the entire liner surface, away from the point of impact. The features on the shell have been placed in a manner to increase the stiffness of the shell and act as crumple zones during an impact. With most of the impacts occurring on the rear portions of the shell, these features help to reduce the level of impacts.

Besides the stiff carbon fiber shell, the KDMax Pole Vault helmet has many numerous safety and competitive features:

• The multi-impact EPP liner resists permanent denting and compressing, a common problem with most bike helmet foams;

• The venting system pulls air from the brow and over the ears into channels running through the interior of the liner, exhausting through the rear edge of the helmet;

• Vaulters expressed concerns about helmets that bob and shift while running toward the plant box. The KDMax helmet's retention is not just a chin strap but a stabilization system that limits rotation and helmet tilt with the padded ear piece stabilizers and chin strap location anchors. The system also promotes correct positioning of the helmet by the user;

• The helmet has a smooth, sleek shape with little drag and no whistling while running. Similar to a swimmers cap through water, this new shape glides through the air;

• In the meetings with the pole vault community, plant arm clearance was often a topic of discussion. The result of those concerns was the creation of scallops in the shell that align with the plant arm and assures that the positioning of the helmet is not tilted or tweaked mid-vault by the plant arm while engaging with the plant box;

• The helmet does not have any external vents. Smooth transitions from one feature to the next along with the stabilizing retention system create a helmet without snap or catch points. The smooth polished shell slides easily over the landing materials, assuring that the helmet does not grab or lock onto the pit during landing;

• The KDMax weighs less than 500 grams, which is only 1.1 pounds - the same or lighter than a standard bike helmet. The close-fitting helmet comes with a full range of fit pad thicknesses to customize the sizing for each vaulter. With the retention snug and helmet worm properly vaulters will hardly know it is there.

Within days after Kevin Dare's death, Curley was contacted by Bill Farrell, a Penn State graduate consulting for SKYDEX, which owns patented protective and comfort cushioning technology that has many applications, from school playgrounds to football helmets to the decks of Navy SEAL assault craft. The technology uses tiny hemispheres -- similar to tennis balls cut in half -- placed on top of each other. The highly durable polymers molded in the SKYDEX twin-hemisphere design can repeatedly absorb large amounts of shock in a small amount of space.

Farrell and the team at SKYDEX immediately began thinking about a soft box for pole vault takeoffs. Curley invited Farrell to Penn State to discuss the soft box concept and improvements in the box collar that surrounds the box. Less than two months after the tragedy, SKYDEX engineers began designing soft box models and comparing their absorption of force with standard steel planting boxes.

With the IAAF certification of the SOFT BOX, SKYDEX Technologies, Inc., has developed three new pole vault safety products: the Vault Box Collar, Pit Extension Pad and the SOFT BOX. All three products are distributed exclusively by Gill Athletics.

The availability of a pole vault specific helmet and soft planting box in the marketplace are just the latest pole vault safety initiatives that Penn State athletics has helped implement during the past 2 3/4 years:

• In May 2002, Penn State hosted a summit on pole vault safety with many members of the track and field community. Also in 2002, the pole vault safety subcommittee of the NCAA Men's and Women's Track and Field Committee made several recommendations that were adopted by the NCAA for the 2002-03 indoor track season and maintained for the current season.

Among the changes adopted by the NCAA was an increase in the size of the landing pad, which previously was required to be a minimum of 16 x 12 feet. The new rule requires that the minimum landing pad width be 19 feet, eight inches and the minimum length be 16 feet, five inches from the back of vaulting box. If the landing pad does not extend to the area immediately around the vaulting box, a box collar of two to four inches of dense foam padding is now required to cover the areas behind and to the side of vaulting box.

The Big Ten conference adopted several safety measures that went beyond the initiatives passed by the NCAA. Among the rules adopted by the Big Ten for competition during the 2003 season at its member institutions:

• The landing pad must have an 8x10 foot target zone called the "preferred landing zone" sewn or painted on the top pad.

• Big Ten pole vaulting coaches and vaulters must annually attend a pole vault safety clinic that is conducted via satellite and the Internet and administered by the Big Ten. This safety clinic has been hosted by Penn State in December the past two years and has been available to junior and senior high schools and NCAA institutions nationwide.

This year's pole vault safety clinic will be hosted by Penn State on Wednesday, Dec. 8.

• Big Ten schools that sponsor track and field will conduct an annual pole vaulting clinic for junior high and high school track and field coaches. Penn State's track and field coaching staff, led by women's head coach, Beth Alford-Sullivan, and men's head coach, Harry Groves, has twice hosted the clinic in the Multi-Sport Building in conjunction with a high school track and field invitational Saturday in the facility.

• A coaches' area has been designated next to the pole vault event. Only one coach per school is permitted in this area.

• Pole vaulters will annually review and sign a document outlining the pros and cons of wearing a helmet during competition.

• Meet officials shall inspect the pole vault event venue before warm-up. If the venue does not meet the criteria set forth in the rules, the referee will call off the event and award all points to the visiting school.

In addition to involvement in the implementation of the new NCAA and Big Ten safety initiatives, Penn State athletics and Ed Dare have been working with the Penn State's College of Engineering to improve standards and testing equipment for the poles used in the event.

Pole vaulters, coaches, athletic directors and parents are encouraged to learn more about the KDMax Pole Vault Helmet at www.PoleVaultHelmet.com and the SOFT BOX at http://www.gillathletics.com

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Last Updated March 19, 2009