SARASOTA — Travis Amuso approached the ladder and cautiously made his way up the rungs.
As he made his way up to the top, hovering some 15 feet in the air, the then Riverview High junior gazed down at the pole vault pit and did his best to swallow the fear building up inside.
Under the watchful eye of his grandfather and coach, Guy Amuso, the younger Amuso said a silent prayer before flipping off the ladder into the pit below.
Amuso rolled out of the pit and smiled back at his grandfather before making his way back to the ladder for another fear drill. The unconventional exercise is designed to curb the fear pole vaulters initially face when they make their way up the pole; and it’s one of many drills and exercises that Amuso’s grandfather used to strengthen his athletes.
“I’ve always been scared of heights my whole life, so doing flips off the ladder — that kind of scared me,” Amuso says. “Most people who are pole vaulting get scared going up, so the fear drills were designed so you know what it felt like.”
Two years later, the Riverview High senior is relying on the values and skillset his grandfather taught him to propel him back to the Class 4A state championships.
Amuso finished eighth at last year’s state championships under the guidance of his grandfather, but, this season, Amuso has had to adjust to not having his mentor alongside him at the pit. Guy Amuso died Feb. 1 at the age of 80.
“It was fun and tough at the same time,” Amuso says of having his grandfather for a coach. “He was hard on me, but he was a really fun coach. He always made us laugh. We’ve always been really close, and it would brighten up my day to see him. He would always yell at me to smile before practice.”
Guy Amuso began coaching at Riverview in 1981. He officially retired 18 years ago, but continued to stay on as a volunteer pole vault coach, especially when Amuso and his older brother, Beau, who graduated from Riverview last year, were finally old enough to pursue the sport.
Amuso made his first appearance at the pole vault pit when he was 10 years old. His grandfather was coaching his cousin, Nolan Amuso, who was vaulting for Sarasota High at the time, and the younger Amuso would hold onto the pole while the other coaches threw him into the pit.
By the time he was a freshman, Amuso was ready to grab a pole and tackle the challenge himself.
“It was exciting,” Amuso says of vaulting. “I just saw the thrill in it. It’s so quick that it doesn’t really scare me.”
During the fall of his freshman year, Amuso suffered a setback when he broke his wrist playing football, but his grandfather refused to let his grandson take the easy way out.
“He always taught me life lessons at practice,” Amuso says. “The biggest thing he taught me was probably never to quit. When I broke my wrist, he told me even though your wrist is broken, you can still learn something. I just remember how proud he was of me for sticking it out.”
Amuso returned to the pole vault pit as a sophomore, and he advanced to the regional meet for the first time.
Last season, Amuso captured his first Class 4A-District 7 title, finished second at the regional meet and advanced to the state championships for the first time.
During the state championships, Guy Amuso fell into the pit while coaching Amuso and fellow vaulter Madison Schmidt and tore his Achilles tendon. When the paramedics arrived, Guy Amuso refused treatment.
“When the paramedics came he told them to go away,” Amuso says. “He said, ‘I have a job to do, and I’m not done yet. I have to keep coaching.’
“That’s one thing he taught me — to never quit on someone,” Amuso says. “It’s been tough (without him), but it really motivates me. I really hope to do well at states in honor of him.”
Earlier this season, Amuso set a new pole vault meet record, clearing 13 feet, 2 inches at the Ram Invitational. Most recently, he cleared 13 feet to win the Wally Keller Invitational April 11, at Charlotte High.
This week, Amuso returned to the pole vault pit at Riverview High for several more practice runs in preparation for the Class 4A-District 8 meet Thursday, at Booker High.
With each practice run, Amuso sails over the vault and peers down at a freshly planted orange tree to the right of the pit. It’s a constant reminder of everything his grandfather stood for and what he meant to Amuso and the rest of the Riverview High track team.
“My grandfather always had orange trees,” Amuso says. “He loved orange juice. It was quite an honor when (the school) planted the tree. Now it’s the job every year of the pole vaulters to take care of that tree.
It’s as if he left a part of himself behind at the pole vault pit.”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].