Richmond Hill’s Rakim Gonzalez signed a national letter of intent Friday with the University of Akron track and field team. Wildcats Coach Levi Sybert said that’s impressive considering Gonzalez only started pole vaulting this year.
“He took something he’d never done before and in eight weeks he was all-state, going up against kids who had been doing it for six years,” Sybert said. “Akron saw that and realized his potential.”
Gonzalez garnered all-state accolades in the pole vault at the AAAAAA state track meet in May, placing sixth at 13 feet. He also was part of the Wildcats’ state champion 4x400 meter relay team and also qualified for the sectional meet this year in the 300 hurdles.
“I’m mainly going there for pole vault, but I do like to run,” Gonzalez said, who intends to major in computer science. “So I’d like to do other events if I can.”
The Zips compete in the Mid-American Conference. Their roster indicates just one returning pole vaulter, but a former member of the team holds the NCAA indoor record in the pole vault with a jump of 19’3” set in 2015.
Sybert said collegiate athletics were not in Gonzalez’s future at the beginning of his high school career.
“He reminds me of myself in high school,” Sybert said. “He didn’t always take care of business his freshman and sophomore years, but over time through the grace and effort of others he got back on track and it gave him an opportunity to take advantage of this natural gift he has.”
Gonzalez agreed, crediting Sybert and others.
“They inspired me to try harder and make myself better,” he said. “I was able to see a future for myself.”
Sybert said Gonzalez’s success story would not have been possible without the efforts of RHHS Principal Debi McNeal and Athletic Director Mickey Bayens.
“We didn’t have a pole vault facility here at the track, so I talked with Debi about some ideas I had,” Sybert said. “Debi and Mickey had some suggestions and they made it happen. Suddenly a ‘no’ became a ‘yes’ and we had it.”
Gonzalez said he also owes credit to Mike Skinkle, a volunteer coach with the track team who works with the pole vaulters.
“He put so much time in and worked with me every day,” Gonzalez said. “I wouldn’t have known what to do without him.”
“Mike doesn’t get paid, but he worked hour after hour with Rakim,” he said. “Pole vaulting is the most dangerous thing you can do in track, and you really need someone who knows what they’re doing.”
As for his decision to try the event, Gonzalez said it took a lot of mental focus.
“I just looked at myself in the third person and pictured myself going over the bar,” he said. “That’s what I do every jump.”