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ROHNERT PARK -- On Jan. 29, Jim Veilleux received a national track and field award that should never have existed in the first place. Common sense, however, sometimes, sadly, requires a champion.

Because Veilleux had common sense, Erica Hause began something 19 years ago that has evolved to one heck of a day job — she is a trapeze artist for the Ringling Brothers Circus. Amazing what can happen when one refuses to stereotype a gender.

Veilleux, the pole vaulting coach at Santa Rosa High School the last 15 years, received the 2011 U.S. Track and Field Pioneer Award at USATF's Pole Vault Summit in Reno.

All because Veilleux said "yes" twice. It's that simple and that complicated.

"If Jim hadn't done what he did," said Linda Hause, Erica's mother, "this never would have happened."

Meaning, Jim Veilleux of Rohnert Park was instrumental in stopping pole vaulting from diving into oblivion.

A journey like this is a journey of a thousand steps. The first step was Erica Hause's. Veilleux was the pole vaulting coach at Cook Junior High. Hause, a ninth-grader, approached Veilleux and asked if she could pole vault for Cook. Veilleux paged through the Santa Rosa City School District rule book for permission. He found none.

"What I read was this: &‘Girls don't pole vault,'" Veilleux said.

The coach had a simple take on that.

"That's ridiculous," Veilleux said. "Just look at female gymnasts and all the stunts they accomplished. That takes a lot of upper body strength but that was the fear back then, girls lacked sufficient body strength. Ludicrous."

No matter, come out, Veilleux told Hause. I'll teach you but I can't promise your results will count on team scores. As it turned out, her vaulting scores did count. According to Linda Hause, since all five junior high schools competed just in the district, agreement was reached.

"All five junior high school principals allowed it," Linda Hause said. "But if it wasn't for Jim allowing Erica to vault, that would never have happened."

Erica Hause entered Montgomery High as a sophomore in 1992. She still wanted to vault. Her mother saw it as a clear case of sexual discrimination. From June 1992 to March 1993, Linda Hause fired off letters, made phone calls, applied pressure to CIF in the most diplomatic of ways through her written entreaties: "It is my desire to resolve this problem by going through appropriate procedure established by CIF. ... I am sending copies of this letter to area commissioners ... and to the National Federation. In the event that the matter remains unresolved in February (1993), I will pursue other options to find an acceptable resolution to the problem."

Which is how Veilleux again became involved. Remember this was fall 1992, and high school girls were not allowed to pole vault in California. So CIF was performing due diligence, in large part because it was being accused of violating its own by-laws. CIF called the only pole vaulting coach who had ever worked with a girl. They asked Veilleux his opinion.

"Yes, they can!" was Veilleux's quote for the record.

A general contractor, Veilleux said yes not because he was a feminist. He said it for an even-more encompassing reason.

"I am a humanitarian," said Veilleux, 65. "It was just the right thing to do. In all the years I have coached pole vault, I have never told a boy or girl I wouldn't coach them. I had one girl take three months to vault six feet. I have had kids ask me to coach and I knew they wouldn't be good vaulters. Didn't matter to me. As long as they had the desire, that's all I needed from them. It was my job to keep them safe."

At a Connecticut high school, Veilleux learned how to vault from a senior vaulter. He stayed away from the sport until his late 30s. He made Sonoma State's track team at 40 and eventually made it to 13-feet 6-inches when he was 41. For the last 10 years Veilleux has run his own pole vault club — Soul Air — from the 110-foot runway and landing pit next to his house. He coached decathlete Jake Arnold in the pole vault.

"Erica got the bug (to pole vault)," said Veilleux, who graduated from SSU with a degree in art/sculpture, "and I helped feed it."

Veilleux, of course, had no idea what he was ultimately feeding. Neither did Hause until she went airborne. Being the air, however brief, captivated her.

"The freedom, I like the freedom," Hause said. "To not be attached to anything, even for a moment or two, was exhilarating."

That freedom took hold and now has such a grip on her, Hause can't imagine doing anything else but flying through the air. She now is in her fourth year as a trapeze artist for Ringling. From January to November she performs for Ringling, lives on the Ringling train, and comes home to Santa Rosa for a few weeks now and then. She had no clue 19 years ago that this would be her life when she asked Veilleux if she could pole vault at Cook.

"Absolutely not," said Hause, 33. "It was the farthest thing from my mind. I just didn't want to fail physical education. And it looked like fun."

Hause and Veilleux only worked together for a year. She went on to vault at Montgomery for three years; the first two years she was the only girl on the team. She vaulted for Santa Rosa JC. Later at USATF conventions, she would be asked to stand up and receive a standing ovation for being The Girl Who Started It All. It's all pretty heady stuff, especially since this happened 20 years after Title IX was made law.

From the first time the Hauses raised the issue, it took CIF 10 months to amend its pole vaulting rules, and only under this condition: The situation would be re-evaluated after two years. Two years later it was given a rubber-stamped approval.

The sport of pole vault was energized. With girls and women now able to compete, twice as many competitors came out. Women's pole vaulting became an Olympic sport in 2002. Stacey Dragilia became the sport's first superstar. All because someone asked a simple question.

"Why not?" was Jim Veilleux's question and, as happened so many times before and since when gender equality has been discussed, there's never been a good answer.

For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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