Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

Take a look at Reed Hancock. A long hard look.

Because she'll never be the same.

It won't just be the 29-hour flight, or the gum-chewing laws (more on that later), or even the culture shock of landing on the other side of the planet amid hundreds of international athletes.

All of that and more will wash over Hancock, whose big blue eyes have never been bigger or brighter. After all, when you're 16, the world is one wide-eyed discovery after another.

And Hancock is about to discover another world.

That's what awaits her at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, which begin next week.

"It's been a big year. It's sort of unreal to grasp the whole thing,'' said Hancock, who leaves Monday.

Lucky for Hancock, her coach understands what it means.

"This will be a life-changing event for her,'' said pole vault wizard Charlie Polhamus, a world-record holder who has become the coach of coaches in this unique sport, training Hancock and a bevy of other vaulters in Southwest Georgia.

But Hancock's his best. She's the jewel of jewels in Polhamus' treasure chest of success stories -- a vaulter whom he says has technique as good as anyone in the world.

No one has soared higher or quicker than her and arguably none of the Polhamus proteges have a future as bright as Hancock, who crushed the competition at this year's GISA Class AAA state meet and now could one day sail over the horizon and right into the Olympics.

That may seem as far away as another planet right now, but the idea of making it to the Olympics became a much greater reality this spring when Hancock took first place in Dallas in April, winning the Junior Olympic gold medal.

ches not only catapulted her to the top of the list of U.S.A. pole vaulters in her age group, but it qualified her to represent the United States in this week's Youth Olympic Games, an event for 16-17 year-olds from around the world that mirrors the Olympics in almost every way.

"The whole Texas thing, the idea was it would be fun to go to that meet and compete. And then I won it," Hancock said. "I remember when I cleared 11 feet and I was going for 11-6 in Dallas, I asked who is still in it, and the (organizers) said, 'Only you.'

"I was surprised.''

Still, she had to wait to get the news that she had qualified for Singapore.

"I had (another coach) in Dallas tell me you're probably not going,'' said Hancock, who finally got the news in June though e-mail. "I really can't believe I'm going. It's shocking.''

Believe it. The U.S. is sending 80 athletes to compete in the same events that are held in the Olympics, including 20 athletes in track & field. It's a select group, and Hancock is on her own in the pole vault.

"She's the only American girl competing in the pole vault,'' Polhamus said. "That tells you something. What she's doing is quite astounding. She's living the dream.''

Hancock isn't pinching herself just yet. She could wake up on the other side of the world with a medal.

That's a pretty long jump for a kid from Leesburg who just finished her sophomore year at Deerfield-Windsor last spring, but Hancock is one of those one-of-a-kind kids. You know, straight A's with a mindset that's even tougher outside the classroom, pretty enough to be the prom queen and tough enough to take on the town bully.

Hancock's got the kind of discipline that runs deep -- way down to a place most of us will never find or even imagine -- and she's got that bag of courage she reaches into every time she flies through the air, laughing at gravity all the way into an exhilarating free fall.

And there's no feeling as good as clearing the next hurdle.

"It's the best part of it, the very best part,'' Hancock said. "It's when you set a new record for yourself, when you get that PR and clear it. I love it.

"And then you hear Charlie shout, 'Yes!' And you get that big hug.''

If Hancock wins a medal in Singapore, you might be able to hear Polhamus shout "Yes!" all the way back to Georgia.

Hancock leaves Monday, and will face her first competition Aug. 17, and compete again on Aug. 21. Her parents will fly out later to be there when she competes, and Polhamus also will be there on the 17th and 21st, just in case anyone needs to shout "yes.''

Polhamus may or may not follow it up with a hug. Hancock has been studying life in Singapore, and said that's frowned upon.

"I've been reading, and found out that they really don't like hugging or embracing there,'' Hancock said. "And you can't chew gum. They don't allow anyone to chew gum. It's, like, against the law.''

With or without Doublemint, Hancock plans to be at her best. She'll have plenty of time for gum on the trip. Hancock, who has been on only three planes in her life, will first fly to New York, connect to flights in Frankfurt, Germany, and then onto Singapore. It's a total of 29 hours in the air.

She'll fly halfway around the world just to try to fly 13 more feet -- 13 magical feet, which just might be enough to earn her a medal.

"They are going to be some girls from Russia and Sweden that have gone 13 and over. It's going to take a 12-6 or 13 to medal, but she has a shot,'' Polhamus said.

Hancock won the GISA Class AAA the state title with a vault of 11-6, and that same 11-6 won the meet in Dallas to send her to Singapore, but Hancock cleared 12-feet, 1 inch in a meet this spring, and clears 13 feet in practice all the time.

"Yeah, but that's practice,'' Hancock said. "You get 30 jumps in practice, and you get just three in a meet. I want to get 13. That's my goal. I know I can do it. It's just getting past that mental block of doing it.''

When you're flying that high, there's more than adrenaline rushing through your veins.

"It can be scary,'' Hancock said. "It's always in the back of your mind. But I'm not the type to be worried about that stuff.''

She's the type who literally flies higher as the stage gets bigger, so even Hancock doesn't know what she might do on the world stage.

"I'm going to be excited,'' Hancock said. "I can't wait to be in that setting. When it's a big meet, I don't really get nervous. I get excited and get pumped up.''

To get an idea where Hancock is at the age of 16, consider this: The 2008 Olympic champ was Russia's Yelena Isenbaeva, who set a world and Olympic record with a vault of 5.05 meters -- or 16 feet, 6 3/4 inches. The top American vaulter was April Steiner, who cleared 4.50 meters -- or 14 feet, 7 1/2 inches.

Isenbaeva will be in Singapore as a mentor to all the young vaulters, and Hancock will surely learn from the master. But Polhamus said Hancock's technique is as good as anyone's -- even Isenbaeva's.

"You can look at her on tape and look at the Russian vaulter and there is no difference in the technique,'' Polhamus said. "Reed's technique is as good as anyone's. Skillwise, she's as good as anyone. It's a question of being strong enough and fast enough now, and that's a matter of hard work.

"She's gutsy, but the difference is that in Russia and Sweden those (vaulters) are in school and they are working four, five hours a day on pole vaulting, and here in America we are working one hour a day on pole vaulting. In (American) colleges they are jumping once a week. We jump four days a week here.''

"Here" is Polhamus' creative and homemade pole vaulting facility he built in his backyard in Fitzgerald, where kids from across Southwest Georgia come to train.

His proteges own every GISA pole vaulting record, and Lee County's Caleb Ebbets broke the GHSA Class AAAA boys state pole vault record this spring. Ebbets and former DWS star John Smith, who set the GISA boys state record three years ago, are both on scholarship at the University of Georgia. And Smith actuallt had a part in Hancock's early success.

Hancock was in eighth grade when she began her journey. She was a talented gymnast and had potential in soccer -- both sports she gave up along the way to dedicate time to pole vaulting, which she never dreamed she would compete in -- let alone excel.

"She just came home one day and said, 'I want to pole vault,' " said Hancock's mother, Joanna Hancock.

It was almost that simple. Hancock was one of the best athletes in middle school and was already competing in track.

"One day, my coach, Charlie Green, said, 'Hey Reed, why don't you try the pole vault?' I was already competing in the high jump, the long jump and the 100-meter hurdles. I liked it right away. I really wasn't scared to try it," she said.

She finished third in the GISA high school state meet as an eighth grader with a vault of 8-6, and that was before she met Polhamus. Smith, who was a senior at Deerfield, was the link to that connection, and he was also a motivator.

"John had a big impact on me. He was so good. I got lucky because I had such an awesome role model, and he was so nice to me,'' Hancock said. "I did it more for the fun of it. It wasn't like, 'Oh, I'm going to be good at this.'

"I just thought it was cool. I was on the varsity track team and I was an eighth grader. It was something nobody else did. I always tell people you just have to find that thing you are good at.''

Hancock certainly did.

Of course, the key was hooking up with Polhamus, whose magic touch has produced a long list of Southwest Georgia pole vaulters.

"I had seen Charlie working with John,'' Hancock said of Polhamus, a former world champion pole vaulter in his heyday. "And then at the state meet my dad went over to Charlie and asked him 'Do you think you could give Reed some help?'

"I finished third at state with an 8-6, and I was excited because it was a PR, and Charlie came over to me and said, 'We have to do better next year.' "

The next thing Hancock knew, she was making two-hour roundtrips three and four times a week to Fitzgerald, where she literally began to rise above her own expectations.

"I saw it more like you grab the pole and roll over,'' Hancock said. "Then Charlie began teaching me technique.''

Even back then, Polhamus could see the potential.

"I'm pretty analytical about athletes,'' Polhamus said. "She had skills that were gifts -- God-given gifts -- but that's not enough. You have to work and you have to buy into the coaching and the technique. She really bought into it.

"And she had the God-given skills and speed. She's a good athlete and I knew if she worked at it, she would get better and better.''

Hancock was surprised she did so well in Dallas, but Polhamus was not.

"I wasn't surprised that she won in Dallas,'' he said. "I knew she had a chance to win, and I believe she has a shot at getting a medal (in Singapore) if she can get 13.''

The trip itself will change Hancock, who admits qualifying has made her look at her future differently.

Hancock will be 18 when the 2012 Olympics get here, and she'll be 22 for the 2016 Olympics, so she is the right age to be thinking about the possibility of competing on the biggest world stage.

"I don't think she ever thought about it that much before all this came about,'' her mother said. "I guess it just depends on where this takes her.''

And this week, she could very well vault into international prominence.

"This is going to be a great experience,'' Hancock said. "The idea is to make this as much like the Olympics as possible, and I'm sure after going to this one it will make you want to experience the real one. I would like to get to that point. I feel like I can if I get bigger poles.''

That's the key: Moving up to bigger poles means being stronger, and having the chance to clear taller heights. More work, more dedication -- more heart and discipline. Right up Hancock's alley.

"It's always been work, but it's always been fun,'' Hancock said.

But she knows she'll never be the same after this.

"What Reed is fixing to experience will take her to another level,'' Polhamus said. "To walk out there wearing the U.S.A. uniform and be representing your country in an international event like this ... There's no feeling in the world like it. It will be life-changing.''