U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. --
Months of training at the Air Force Academy have an Air Force contracting officer aiming for the sky and the gold at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
First Lt. Cale Simmons, a 2013 Air Force Academy graduate, earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team for pole vaulting July 4 at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon. At the event, he cleared a height of 18'6½" on his first try to earn the spot on the USA squad.
The footprints of his Olympic journey go to and through the Air Force Academy. Identical twins Cale and Rob Simmons followed their older sister Rachel’s path to the Academy to become pole vaulters, and all three trained under track and field assistant head coach Scott Steffan.
“When I first got here 10 years ago, Rachel was a freshman, so I worked with her for a couple of years,” Steffan said. “Then, when Rob and Cale came here a year later. I was their main coach and dealt with their craziness, but it was fun coaching them at the same time. It took me two years to figure out which one was Cale and which was Rob, so I just called them Cale-Rob. At the start of their junior year, I could finally tell them apart.”
Working under Steffan, Cale increased his maximum height cleared by more than two feet. Both the coach and athlete attribute the improvements to a host of reasons, from conditioning and resiliency gained during basic cadet training, to improvements in strength and speed, and improved confidence and perseverance.
The sport itself, explains Cale, calls upon an athlete’s physical and mental capabilities.
“For pole vaulting, you need to have that consistent step. A lot of sprinting is knowing how fast you are at a certain point,” he said. “I can tell anywhere from 30-40 feet out what I’m going to do when the pole hits that pit. I already know if my step’s on based on where I am at and my relative position to the pads. You can tell a lot about how you’re going to jump before you jump, just by how you’re setting yourself up for it.”
After graduating in 2013, Rob went off to become a C-17 pilot, while Cale went on to be a contracting officer. Cale kept with his training, and applied to the World Class Athlete Program, which is designed to allow elite athletes the opportunity to train and compete in national events to make the Olympics. He was accepted in to the WCAP program in August 2015, and returned to the Air Force Academy to train with his collegiate coach, in a move he calls a “no-brainer.”
“To start off with, it was either a gamble or a sure thing,” Cale said. “Scott Steffan is a great guy, he really gets me and he really knows how to coach me. It’s hard for me to change that up on a gamble with another coach. I wanted someone I was comfortable with, somebody who knows me and knows how to coach me. A lot of coaching isn’t being the smartest person on the block, it’s knowing how to get through to your athletes, and how to motivate and teach them. Having that relationship with my coach for those four years at the Academy really helped reinforce those ideas and helped me know that’s what I wanted out of a coach that was full-time in this discipline.”
The Academy training has included work with nutritionists, strength coaches, Steffan and other cadets on the current Track and Field team.
"It’s a great inspiration to the cadets, they get fired up,” Steffan said. “When you have Olympic-type athletes around, it’s really a motivational factor for the other athletes, knowing that they can be there too, especially with Cale being a graduate of the Air Force Academy, knowing that ‘If he can do it, why can’t I?’”
According to Steffan, there are several current cadets who have a shot at going to the 2020 Olympic trials, and are watching Simmons’ training and technique closely.
“We’re real excited for him to make the team,” Steffan said. “It’s a dream of everybody’s and to be able to go down to Rio and represent the United States and also the Air Force Academy and all the hard work, it’s been a blessing and a great ride and hopefully it will continue.”
The men’s pole vaulting competition is the evening of Aug. 13, and the men’s finals to medal in pole vaulting is Aug. 15.
After competing in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Cale hopes to go on to compete in the world championships in London, in 2017.