Suhr honored by Fredonia community for record-setting career
Just after 2 p.m. Saturday, Rick and Jenn Suhr approached the pole that towered over Barker Commons in the village. With a large crowd looking on, they reached down, grabbed a corner of a sheet decorated with American flags, and upon lifting it off a monument, husband and wife could read the following words on its front:
Olympic Gold Medalist
World Record Holder
Presented by the Fredonia
Olympic Celebration Committee
Above those five lines was a small color photo of Jenn after she won the gold medal in the pole vault at the 2012 Summer Games in London. She was holding the Stars and Stripes. Her smile in that image was, understandably, ear-to-ear.
Jenn had much the same countenance on a beautiful late-summer weekend in her hometown.
“This is not something you find everywhere, so thank you,” she said. ” … I have never seen the support … like you have shown me.”
Julie Essek, the chairman of the Fredonia Olympic Celebration Committee, had envisioned such a day for years. In fact, it was just after Jenn made her first U.S. Olympic Team in 2008 that a committee was formed to find just the right way to honor her. At a meeting in the trustees room at the Village Hall, some people suggested selling T-shirts and lawn signs, which ultimately did happen.
But Essek, at the urging of then-Mayor Mike Sullivan, had an even grander plan.
“I stood up,” she recalled in the moments leading up to Saturday’s festivities, “and said, ‘I’m kind of envisioning a pole with maybe the American flag and an Olympic flag with a monument at the base honoring her big achievement and, maybe, we could think about that.'”
Fourteen years — and as many as 50 committee people — later, Essek’s vision is now finally a reality.
“We’ve done quite a lot,” she said. “We did sell T-shirts, we did sell lawn signs and we ended up using that money to purchase the pole and to purchase two monuments. … The first one was removed and we donated it to Fredonia Central School and it said, ‘Jenn Stuczynski’ on it. That’s where she went to school and that was her maiden name, so it was fitting.
“This one that we unveiled is in honor of her gold medal and her lifelong world records indoors and outdoors.”
Ah, yes, Jenn, who announced her retirement in June, had herself quite a pole vaulting career.
“What did you create here?” asked Rick Suhr, who is her coach and who first introduced her to the sport 18 years ago. “You created Jenn. … She is a 17-time U.S. champion. Tiger Woods never won 17 U.S. Opens (in golf), Serena Williams never won 17 U.S. Opens (in tennis), but Fredonia’s Jenn Suhr won 17 U.S. Championships (in the pole vault).
“What else did she do? She set the American record 15 years ago. It’s still there. It still stands. She broke it 12 times. No one has jumped it since. America’s a big place, a really big place. The world is a big place. Over a decade ago, Jenn flat-out broke the world record. … That record still stands today. … I never would have thought it would have stood that long.”
Chalk that up to Jenn’s dedication to her craft, in combination with elite athleticism that, many assert, could have made her a professional in other sports had she chosen to go in a different direction.
“Inside of each of us there is something spectacular,” Essek maintained. “Sometimes we’re not able to unlock it and sometimes we’re not able to unlock it at the right time. She was able to unlock it at the right time and use it. All those stars lined up at the right time. Rick really has a good eye for an athlete, and she is an all-around athlete, but she’s an all-around sweetheart. I love her. I’m so glad our community has had a chance to honor her. So many years. … What a journey.”
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Saturday’s ceremony, which was held in conjunction with the Red, White and Blues Festival, had every bit the feel of a family reunion.
Essek and her husband, Doug — Fredonia’s mayor — have known Jenn since the mid-1980s when she was a toddler and they worked at the Fredonia Food Mart, the Stucynski family-owned store.
“My husband and I met over at (the) store,” Julie said. ” … It was a family atmosphere and little Jenn was only about 2 years old. As she grew, we watched her and all she accomplished. When she made the Olympics, we were like, ‘You know what? This community needs to do something big.'”
Added Doug Essek: “(Jenn) put her heart and soul into (her Olympic dreams) and this is the least we could do.”
Jenn was clearly touched by it all.
“The support I got in high school is no different than the support I get now,” she said. “I think that matters to athletes here. What you guys do to get behind athletes in a small-town community really makes a difference and you follow us through college, you followed me throughout my pro career.
“It wasn’t so much the highs that mattered, it was the lows. When I was low, everyone was there to pick me up.”
Jenn needed no such encouragement on Saturday.
Her smiles as she greeted her well-wishers spoke volumes.
“This is a phenomenal gathering,” Rick said. “My job was easy. There were four things in this before I was involved. You had good teaching, great community, good coaching and phenomenal parenting.
“About a year ago, a reporter asked me, ‘What would you want Jenn to be remembered for more than anything?’ I simply said she’s a better person than she is a pole vaulter and that tells you the measure of influence that the community here in Fredonia has had in creating just a great, all-around champion.”
NOTES: Besides Jenn and Rick and Doug and Julie Essek, others making remarks at Barker Commons were master of ceremonies Mike Ferguson; Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel; State Assemblyman Andrew Goodell; and state Sen. George Borrello.