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Engineering’s Vaunted Vaulter

In 2005, USA Today published a series of articles about “the 10 hardest things to do in sports.” Number three on that list, ahead of such feats as running a marathon and completing the Tour de France, was pole vaulting. In any ranking of the most difficult academic subjects, electrical engineering must surely finish high on the list. In that regard, Sean Busch is not only an accomplished pole vaulter, but a gifted electrical engineering major. What does that make Sean Busch? Well, busy, for one thing. Skillful, for another. And it also makes him a member of the Atlantic 10 Academic All-Conference Team and the winner of the UMass Amherst Winter Male Scholar-Athlete Award.

“The pole vault is an incredibly difficult event,” he says. “Every time you compete you want to set a personal record, but that’s not going to happen. The mechanics are so demanding. It takes years to develop good enough mechanics to compete at even a high school level. And it’s very disconcerting to be in that upside down position before you vault toward the bar. The event is all about muscle memory.”

The same kind of balance that helps Sean hover upside down for a tantalizing moment – poised at the slingshot end of a curving, 16-foot-long, fiberglass pole just before being catapulted over the bar – also helps him balance the rest of his life.

“Pole vaulting is something that I am passionate about, but it doesn’t really drive my life,” he says. “I don’t schedule all my time around training, and my parents didn’t drive me to be this accomplished athlete, like some parents do. But it does help me define myself.”

His definition? In part, he has tied the UMass record in the pole vault (twice) at 15’9’’, he has won the Atlantic-10 championship, both indoors and outdoors, and he has a 3.71 GPA in electrical engineering, a discipline that’s all in the family. His father is an electrical engineer, and his mother was a computer engineer. He doesn’t look at himself as a guy bogged down with both intercollegiate athletics and a heavy academic load. Instead, one balances the other.

“I do feel I wouldn’t have had the same college experience without pole vaulting,” he says. “It helps with the stress of a demanding electrical engineering education, which is very technical. Athletics gives me an outlet.”

Sean is also not the sort of guy to be overly impressed with himself. When asked how it feels to be on the academic all-conference team, he says, “It was really an honor, and so were the other awards. But it’s hard to say I really deserved all these things, because I just showed up for practice.”

Sean is a role model for perseverance, especially because he really wasn’t a superstar at Nashoba Regional High School, near his hometown of Stow, Massachusetts. He was a good pole vaulter, with a PR of 13’6” when he tied for third in the state meet, but wasn’t highly recruited by college track coaches. After he chose UMass Amherst and was accepted on his academic record, he had to walk-on the track team without a scholarship. It turned out to be a huge break for both Sean and UMass, because he became the only pole vaulter on the team.

Despite the difficulty of pole vaulting, there must obviously be a big upside, too, as Sean explains. “About 90 percent of the time, it’s really frustrating. But that 10 percent of the time that you do succeed and achieve what you want to, it’s a feeling like nothing else I’ve ever felt. It’s almost like flying. And afterwards I’m euphoric for about a week. And when the fiberglass pole slings you over the bar, you feel weightless.”

His professional goal after he graduates is to work in a position that balances (There’s that word again!) electrical engineering knowledge and customer service. Last summer he did an internship at the Littleton, Massachusetts, IBM facility and provided technical support for the Lotus Notes client, advising network administrators on how to properly use and troubleshoot problems with the product.

“I would like to have a job something like that,” he says, “in which success is defined by how satisfied your customers are.”

Sean has a message for prospective engineering students who are also interested in intercollegiate sports or other demanding activities. “It’s amazing, given my commitment to school and athletics, but I find I also have time to do the extracurricular activities I like, whether it’s hiking, spending time with friends, or going to the Big E. It’s just a matter of making good use of your time. That’s what I tell the track recruits who want to take engineering.”

In other words, as any good pole vaulter learns through muscle memory, always stay balanced. (September 2010)