WATSON -- Clayton Simms is soaring to the Midwest.
Simms, a state champion pole vaulter for Live Oak High who didn’t start competing until his freshman year, signed his letter of intent to continue his athletic career at the University of Kansas.
Simms, who committed to the university last fall, made it official during a small ceremony held near Live Oak’s football stadium on Wednesday, Feb. 3. Seated at a Kansas-themed table with red, white, and blue balloons on both sides, Simms’ parents, coaches, friends, and teachers watched as he jotted down his signature while wearing a Jayhawks sweatshirt.
Those in attendance applauded once Simms put his pen down, and a few offered him encouragement as he prepares to embark on a new journey.
“We can’t wait to see you on the national level,” said Principal Beth Jones. “We know you have a future even outside of college. One day we’ll be excited to watch you in the Olympics. You definitely represent Live Oak High School very well.”
Simms has literally ascended through the pole vaulting ranks during his brief career.
He joined the sport as a freshman, following six years of gymnastics. As a gymnast, he competed in all six events — floor exercise, pommel horse, still rings, vault, parallel bars, and horizontal bar — before the wear and tear from all the hours of practice began to burn him out.
Plus, a growth spurt in eighth grade made running and tumbling across the mat a little more difficult.
“I was getting a little too tall,” he said with a laugh.
Thankfully, Simms’ former gymnastics coach had already made a suggestion about what sport he should pursue next.
“My coach told me, ‘If you ever stop gymnastics, you might as well try pole vaulting. It’s a natural transition,’” he recalled. “So I did.”
Simms said he was completely new to the sport of pole vaulting when he first stepped on the field as a freshman. He had some teammates show him some of the basics and then got extra help at the Louisiana Pole Vault Compound in Tickfaw, which specializes in the coaching of junior high and high school athletes in daily practices, occasional clinics, or overnight camps.
Though Simms tried out other sports such as cross country and wrestling during his freshman year, nothing compared to the thrill of pole vaulting.
“I just fell in love with it,” Simms said. I love the thrill. I love that It’s very technical and meticulous. It just gave me an outlet to focus on and put my full attention on. It’s given me a lot of opportunities. I've been able to travel to places I never thought I’d go to and compete with the best groups in the country.
“There’s a lot of different things to love about pole vaulting.”
He also fell in love with winning, the result of year-round training that his coaches say is unlike anything they’ve seen. During the ceremony, Live Oak track coach Stephen Prescott lauded Simms’ dedication to his craft, saying it’ll “get him anywhere in life.”
“This is a testament to what hard work and preparation does,” Prescott said. “His hard work got him to the state level and now the national level. I have no doubt in my mind that he will become an Olympian because of his hard work and dedication. That’ll get him anywhere in life.”
Joe Sarra, Simms’ current coach at the Tickfaw compound and a 10-year coaching veteran, echoed those remarks, saying that Simms is “always” trying to improve. The two text constantly, watch film, and are always bouncing ideas off of one another.
“The main thing about Clayton and what separates him from anyone else I’ve ever coached is his willingness to do whatever it takes,” Sarra said. “Some people say they want to do whatever it takes, but Clayton’s willing to do it. He’s constantly thinking about what he needs to do to get better. For him, it’s an everyday thing.”
As a freshman, Simms competed during the outdoor season and made it to regionals. While he didn’t qualify for either the LHSAA’s indoor or outdoor championships his first year, Simms continued to diligently work at his new craft and cleared 15 feet by the end of summer in 2018.
Simms then won the Division I LHSAA state indoor championship as a sophomore in 2019, capturing the competition with a 15-8 ¼ clearance. After battling some injuries, he rounded into shape to win the state outdoor championship at 15-6.
Sarra, who has coached national champions, said he has seen few as competitive as Simms.
“When he’s in a meet — and I mean this in the nicest way possible — he wants to rip your heart out,” Sarra said of Simms. “He’s very, very focused. But Clayton has found a way to be able to be an intense competitor but also support everybody else on the team.
“I believe in karma, and that’s good karma coming back on him. You’re honored to coach a kid like that.”
As junior, Simms defended his title in the indoor championship but was unable to do so in the outdoor competition due to the coronavirus pandemic, which forced officials to shut down all spring sports in the state.
But for Simms, the unexpected break turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Dealing with nagging injuries, Simms decided to have foot surgery during the quarantine, saying at the time, “Better now than never.” He said he was unable to train much over the summer and didn’t really start running again until August.
But the surgery has already paid dividends — Simms has set personal records twice since returning to the field.
“I think it was a really good opportunity for me,” he said. “I think it was more of a positive than anything. I basically took it as an opportunity to get better and improve my body.”
Simms said his ultimate goal is reaching the Olympics, something he and his coaches believe is possible if he keeps progressing. That dream of representing the nation on the world’s biggest stage is what Simms said pushed him to Kansas, which has one of the top programs in the country.
At his next stop, Simms will learn under Tom Hays, who is in his 16th season as the vertical jumps coach at the University of Kansas. A former Jayhawk athlete, Hays has brought the Kansas vertical jumps program to new heights, coaching Hussain Al Hizam to an indoor national championship in the pole vault in 2018.
Hussain became the fourth national champion coached by Hays at Kansas. In the last five seasons, Hays has coached eight Big 12 champions, one national champion, five First-Team All-Americans, 10 Second-Team All-Americans and one All-America Honorable Mention honoree.
For Simms, the chance to learn under such a highly-successful coach was the ultimate selling point.
“They have one of the best pole vaulter coaches in America, if not in the world,” Simms said. “Tom Hays has got a really good track record, and he’s a great guy.”
Simms said he is eager to begin the next chapter of his life, adding that he is looking forward to “getting out and seeing new and different things.” Being from out-of-state, Simms knows there will be an adjustment period — especially with the cold weather, which will take the southern boy some time to get used to.
“I know it snows up there, so I don’t know if I’m too excited for that,” he said with a laugh. “But it’s a different place and not what I’m used to, and I like getting out of my comfort zone.
“In the end, I want to get as far as I can with this and as far as my body will take me. And I think if anything can get me there, it’s that program.”