Traveling with 18-foot skinny fiberglass poles is an attention-getter — something not seen in everyday life.
“Driving on the freeway, going 80 miles per hour, people would drive up, roll their window down and ask me if I was carrying a sailboat, rocket launcher or a missile,” said Tyler Wallace.
D. None of the above. Try a pole vault.
Don’t even get Wallace started on going through an airport with a pole. It was always a hassle to convince ticket counter agents that poles were accepted for travel.
“I’ve heard horror stories where airlines would cut the poles in half to get them on the plane,” Wallace said.
Wallace, 30, doesn’t travel with poles now. Instead, as one of three Edward Jones advisors on The Rock, Kodiakans turn to Wallace for investment advice. A diploma and a photo of him sitting next to his grandma are displayed in his office. There is no hint of his past career as a professional pole vaulter. All of his keepsakes from more than a decades-worth of competing are tucked away in his parents’ house in Temecula, California — a 116,000-population town smackdab between Los Angeles and San Diego.
He only talks about his pole vaulting career when asked. But don’t let the modesty fool you — he was good. The kind of good that catapulted him into a United Airlines national commercial, a one-on-one basketball game against “Space Jam” director Joe Pytka, international competitions and on the cusp of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials.
“I miss it every day,” said Wallace as he rubbed his quadriceps that were covered by slacks — his new work attire.
Wallace left his pole vaulting career behind when he moved to Kodiak in 2018 with his belongings in a four-by-six trailer strapped to the back of a hybrid car that was not fitted for a trailer.
Traveling the Alcan was an adventure. He saved that story for another time.
Moving to a state where pole vaulting is nearly non-existent — there are only a few pits in the state, and one is in a Quonset hut in Fairbanks — hasn’t slowed his passion for the sport. He can recite the world record like it is his cell number. For those wondering, the men’s world record is 20 feet, 3¼ inches, set in February by American-born Swedish vaulter Armand Duplantis. Wallace’s career-best was 18-2.5. That’s elite status for a guy whose athletic glory now is playing city league softball and volleyball.
“Did he have all the natural talents in the world? No. There is always somebody who has more natural ability than you,” said Brian Yokoyama, Wallace’s coach and the USA Track and Field Pole Vault Developmental chairperson. “Tyler had a good head on his shoulders. He had a lot of the tools that you need to be great. It is not just about physical ability; it is what he could do with his mind.”
Wallace didn’t set out to be a pole vaulter. But who does? The dude is afraid of heights. Even being on a ladder turns his knuckles white.
“That fear doesn’t transition to pole vault because it is so exciting — just something about it is so exhilarating that it makes you want to be there all the time,” he said.
He has his high school baseball coach to thank for launching a career that landed him a full-ride scholarship to NCAA Division I Long Beach State University, where he still holds the fourth-best pole vault mark in school history.
Wallace’s dad, Mike, coached all four of his boys on the diamond. Wallace was — in his own words — an all-star butterfly catcher in right field. You see, back then, Wallace was scrawny. Really scrawny. He checked in at 5-foot-3 and 98 pounds. And that was probably dripping wet.
His small stature didn’t impress the Chaparral High School coach, and he got cut from the team his freshman year. However, the coach let Wallace practice. Despite putting in the work, he never got promoted to a game.
Sophomore year came around and, not wanting to experience being left in the dugout again, he went out for track. His best friend was on the team and recommended pole vault, an event Wallace’s grandfather did back when poles were made out of bamboo.
“The second that I held the pole vault in my hands, I was in love,” Wallace said. “It was just something different. After years of baseball, and not making the team, it was a little heart-wrenching.”
Through YouTube videos and a lot of self-education — the school’s pole vault coach worked at a nearby school and only showed up for practice twice a week — Wallace cleared 14-07 in high school, which was 2 inches shy of the school record.
“A lot of people think that when you start pole vaulting that you automatically know how to bend the pole and get upside down,” Wallace said. “Well, it is a very long process. When I started, I wasn’t coming anywhere close to that … I was just swinging and landing on my butt. I wasn’t going upside down or anything.”
The key to becoming a decent pole vaulter, according to Wallace, is running a consistent and aggressive approach and learning how to carry the pole. Once those two things come into form, magic happens, and the pole begins to bend.
Hooked on the challenge of perfecting his form, Wallace followed his part-time high school coach to Riverside Community College. He blossomed at Riverside, vaulting a then-school record 16-2 (he later coached the kid who beat his mark) and helped lead the track team to back-to-back California state team titles. Wallace’s accomplishments caught the attention of Long Beach State.
His career took flight at The Beach. It also helped that Wallace had sprouted to 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds. In his first year at the Division I school, he went from clearing 16-2 to 18-00.5. He graduated from Long Beach as a two-time West Regional qualifier and a one-time Big West Champion.
“I started out being a real little kid in high school. Then, I grew a bunch real fast. I was awkward and didn’t have a lot of coordination with all my new limbs,” Wallace said.
The first time he cleared 18 feet happens to be the moment that shines the brightest in his career. His dad was at the meet, and even with bad knees, jumped over a chain-link fence and greeted him the moment he pulled himself off the pit.
“To this day, I don’t know how he made it there. I really wish somebody would have filmed it,” Wallace said.
That was also a proud moment for his dad.
“At that point, I didn’t feel my knees. I just got up and over the fence. I wasn’t worried about how I was going to land or anything else. The adrenaline carried me through,” Mike said.
According to Wallace, vaulters who clear 18 feet are considered elite. Being labeled elite opened the door for his post-collegiate career. Yokoyama scouted Wallace and persuaded him to pursue a professional career as a pole vaulter.
“Long Beach State University, although it has a good, rich tradition, a person coming out of there is not as common as a person coming out of Tennessee,” Yokoyama said. “That caught my eye. Here is a guy who did it on his own — one of those nuggets that we are always looking for.”
Yokoyama triggered Wallace’s pro career and helped him enter competitions in Japan and Taiwan. Being a professional pole vaulter, as you can imagine, doesn’t pad the wallet. He trained five hours a day while making ends meet as a substitute teacher, being a coach and working in the school's maintenance department where he trained.
He came painstakingly close to qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials — a spot away in 2012 and two places shy in 2016 — and, according to Yokoyama, is one reason the qualifying rules have changed.
Yokoyama said many athletes during the time Wallace competed chased marks, meaning they sought out meets with favorable weather conditions. Wallace wasn’t like that. He jumped in any conditions. Leading up to the 2012 trials, Wallace had one of the top 24 marks in the nation until the last week of qualifying when a guy chasing a mark hurdled him in the standings.
The same thing happened in 2016 when he finished 26th in the nation.
Yokoyama said Wallace had beaten many of the guys ahead of him in the standings multiple times, but was stung by the qualifying rules. Now, vaulters have to hit the Olympic qualifying standard twice — in different locations — instead of once to earn a spot at the trials.
“Tyler was a winner. The problem was he just couldn’t get a competition where the conditions were favorable, and he wasn’t the type who was going to go chase marks — he was going to go win the competition wherever he went. He did that,” Yokoyama said.
Wallace’s training was put on pause leading up to the 2016 trials when, thinking the odds would be astronomical in being a genetic match, he signed up to donate bone marrow. A month after donating blood, he received a call. He was a match and was told he couldn’t do any physical activity for three months leading up to the marrow donation.
“It was kind of hard to turn that down — you get the chance to save someone’s life by donating blood, you don’t have an option to say no,” Wallace said.
After missing the Olympic trials twice, Wallace started questioning his career path. The answer always circled back to inspiring up-and-coming pole vaulters. When he attended the yearly National Pole Vault Summit in Reno, Nevada, he was in awe of the questions tossed his way by emerging pole vaulters and how interested they were in what he had to say.
“Even if you are not jumping a new personal best every single competition, there is still someone who wishes they could jump as high as you on a bad day — that kept me going,” Wallace said.
Still, even that wasn’t enough, and, in 2017, he retired from the sport that had been part of his life for nearly two decades. Of course, stepping away didn’t come without parental advice.
“They have a dream, and you don’t want to take that away, but you have to give them a little grounding every once in a while and let them know here is the deal and what can you really do with this at this point,” Mike said. “It was a good decision on his part.”
Wallace did not obtain his dream of vaulting to a gold medal, but he did earn a gold star with his name on it in 2012 when he landed a role in the United Airlines commercial “Getting Ready.” The commercial — directed by Pytka — was a back-and-forth comparison on how track events translate to flying.
He spent a day living the Hollywood life — a five-star breakfast, makeup artists, one-on-one basketball with Pytka and a changing trailer. Out of the two hours of footage the camera crew shot of him practicing, Wallace emerged twice in the 30-second clip — once carrying a bag on a runway and then a closeup of his rear end going over the bar.
“You got to know what my butt looks like pretty well to know that it was me on the TV,” laughed Wallace.
After ending his career, Wallace, an economics major, got involved with Edward Jones. Nearing the end of a three-month financial adviser and career development program, Wallace’s teacher informed the class of a job in Kodiak. Before accepting the job, Wallace spent a weekend on the Emerald Isle. He immediately knew it was the place for him.
“It wasn’t brown like California,” he said. “I was tired of the heat and the people. It is just not the pace of living that I wanted.”
Wallace arrived in Kodiak in May 2018 and doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon. He recently bought a house and is the Morning Rotary Club president and a Chamber of Commerce board member. He jokes that people on the island know him for sports and being boring.
“Your town is lucky to have a gentleman like Tyler,” Yokoyama said. “He is a rare breed — a very giving person and non-selfish. He is just a good person. That is what made him stand out to me more than anybody … He was one of the good guys that we lost in our community, but you guys gained up there.”
Wallace would consider getting back into pole vaulting at a less competitive level, but wonders what his life would have looked like if he never cleared 18 feet.
“Maybe I would be rich and famous by now doing something else,” he said.