After leaping an ocean to come to UC, Bearcat pole vaulter sets his sights on the Olympics
In Adrian Valles’ native tongue, you might say he is a saltador de pértiga increíble.
Or in American vernacular, he’s a damn good pole vaulter.
Valles competed on Spain’s national team at the International Association of Athletics Federation World Track & Field Championships in Beijing in August 2015 — one of 35 athletes in the world to qualify in pole vault.
His personal best is 18 feet, 6.5 inches, good enough to set the outdoor pole vault record at the University of Cincinnati and for the American Athletic Conference. He owns the top indoor mark for UC and the conference, too. His freshman year he was named a first-team All-American for indoor and outdoor track.
Not bad for someone just turning 21.
Athletic accomplishments aside, Valles’ most important leap was across the pond from the land of running bulls to the home of flying pigs.
Valles is from Pamplona, Spain, a city of nearly 200,000 people not far from the southern border of France. His hometown is known worldwide for its encierro, or running of the bulls, during the annual Fiesta de San Fermín. The summertime spectacle features thrill-seekers scampering through crowded cobblestone streets as Spanish fighting bulls rumble headlong to their ultimate demise in the Plaza de Toros.
Running for his life with horns at his heels never captured Valles’ interest, but the track did — and so did the opportunity to further his education.
“I started thinking about joining my studies and my track career,” says Valles. “The universities in America give a lot of importance to both aspects in life.”
Even as a boy, Valles loved running and jumping. Track and field was a natural fit for him, and as he developed athletically, his abilities translated well to the technical demands of the pole vault. He found a passion that grew with every running leap, every airborne corkscrew, every backward free fall. By the time he was a teenager, he was one of the best vaulters in the country.
Eventually the letters came. Schools from around the world, including UC, were interested in the 6-foot-4-inch athlete’s uncommon blend of speed, strength and skill.
Valles knew of UC’s reputation as a good program for pole vaulting, even an ocean away. He was encouraged by UC’s commitment to him throughout the recruiting process and impressed by the educational opportunities. It was enough for him to leave his home and chase the possibilities 4,000 miles west.
His parents had always encouraged him to travel, and he’d briefly studied in France and Ireland during high school. But that was still Europe. Now life’s runway was pointing toward America, and all he had to do was take the leap.
“I came one time to the states for the World Junior Championships in Eugene, Oregon. That was one month before coming here. I didn’t really know what it was like to live in the states,” Valles says in his charismatically thick accent.
As with any jump, the landing matters. And in UC, Valles found the softest of spots to touch down. The Bearcats boast three dozen athletes from 20 different countries among their ranks, and UC is home to more than 3,000 international students. The diverse mix has helped make for a smooth transition for Valles, says head track & field coach Susan Seaton, herself a native German and former star youth athlete.
“There are certain struggles, and it helps to have some other foreign students on the team and on campus,” Seaton says. “There are some good conversations they’re able to have. That’s what our team enjoys so much about having international athletes around. They get a whole new perspective.”
Valles’ integration to college life did have its challenges. Balancing the academic rigors of an industrial management curriculum in the Carl H. Lindner College of Business with the physical demands of major university-level athletics wasn’t easy.
Even the thing Valles was most familiar with — his sport — was different in the U.S., as American track emphasizes the team more than the individualized European style does.
Valles’ extreme self-confidence helps a great deal. It’s a characteristic his coaches say is possibly more impressive than any of his physical attributes. And it never fades, even throughout the team’s three-hour practices, six days a week.
“It’s almost astounding how rock solid and how confident he is when he steps on the runway,” says assistant coach and pole vault specialist Sam Kranz.
Fueled by that competitive spark, Valles has added a foot to his jump in the past year. He’s now barely under the Olympic qualifying mark of 5.70 meters (roughly 18 feet, 8.5 inches). Donning the yellow and red of Spain this August in Rio de Janeiro is a realistic goal, his coaches say, and one Valles doesn’t hide from.
“My main goal for this year is making the Olympics,” he says. “If I can make it at 21, that would be awesome.”
He’s already cleared a cultural gap the size of the Atlantic. So what’s a few more inches?
Tom Robinette is a freelance writer and a contributor to UC Magazine.
Additional credits: Video footage by Andrew Higley, Lisa Ventre and Colleen Kelley. Video editing by Andrew Higley. Digital design by John Bach.