By Kevin Oklobzija, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
A health nightmare at the Rio Olympics has left Jenn Suhr with a still-lingering cough but also a lasting impression with regard to her career.
Illness deprived the 34-year-old Riga resident and Fredonia native of a chance to repeat as gold medalist in the women's pole vault last month. And while she's not ready for retirement, she vows that as she trains for the 2017 World Championships — with the 2020 Summer Games as the long-range goal — there will be a distinct separation between life on the pole vault runway and life in general.
"I'll compete," Suhr said, "but it has to be fun now. I don't have to win every meet. I don't have to set a personal best every time.
"I'll do pole vault when it's pole vault time and then live life."
Suhr says she'll continue to live that life in Western New York, too. Especially after the outpouring of support following her heartache in Rio de Janeiro.
She was plagued in Rio by a respiratory ailment that also caused nausea and deprived her of strength and equilibrium. She managed to clear 4.6 meters in the the qualifying round on Aug. 16, earning a spot in the finals.
"I knew it was a height I could execute in my sleep," Suhr said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon at her alma mater, Roberts Wesleyan College.
But instead of an improvement in her health heading into the Aug. 19 medal competition, she felt even worse. "She was coughing up blood, vomiting during the meet," said Rick Suhr, her husband and coach.
She awoke from a nap on finals day in a full sweat. "I actually had to blow-dry my hair because it was that wet from just sweating in my sleep.
"I was extremely dizzy. It felt like I was in a fun house where I was walking sideways, trying to get to the bathroom."
Her performance reflected her condition. She failed to clear 4.7 meters and finished seventh.
The gold medalist from the London Olympics was devastated, not so much because she couldn't match her expectations, but because of what she believed others expected.
"In 2012 I felt like I won it for everyone else," she said, "and this one felt like I lost it for everyone."
When she arrived home, she realized everyone was very much behind her.
"I got letters from kids, adults, just people reaching out," she said. "That's when I knew I was loved. That's why I love this area. That's why I'll never move."
She'll show her gratitude from 4-6 p.m. on Sept. 23 with a free pole vaulting exhibition on the track at Roberts Wesleyan, part of homecoming weekend festivities. Rick Suhr said three or four other top collegiate pole vaulters in the area also will take part.
She returned to workouts and training on Labor Day weekend and says she continues to feel better. Though her illness still hasn't been diagnosed, she wants fans to know she's not contagious. "People are like, 'Wait, you're Jenn Suhr,' and then they move all their groceries to the back of the belt," she joked.
The time she has devoted to her sport really struck her during the flight home from Rio. The disappointment of failure was painful. But with it came reflection; an awakening, perhaps.
"She asked, 'What if I had won? Would it have been worth the amount of struggles and what we put into it, and the amount we prioritized and gave up?' " Rick said. "Even if she had won a gold medal, it wasn't worth the amount of turmoil that maybe it's caused in our life.
"I don't regret giving up the amount we've given up to be as good as we were. Jenn's won 17 U.S. titles. It's going to be a long time, at least 16 years, for someone else to end that. Was it worth it? Maybe at a younger age it was worth it. Was it worth it now? It wasn't."
So they will train, and live life, a little differently now. Without abandoning competition.
"I still have a lot of fire left in me," Jenn said. "I can't go out with this."