AOY Rewind: McLean vaults back into life on Valley Isle
AOY Rewind is a special series of stories catching up with a handful of past Maui News Athletes of the Year. Stories will run periodically throughout the fall in The Maui News.
A sprint and a sky-high leap is all it took for Bubba McLean to get hooked.
McLean’s first-ever experience with pole vaulting at St. Anthony School eventually led to a string of Maui Interscholastic League titles, two state championship crowns, collegiate and national rankings, and an eight-year professional career.
“It’s such an obscure sport, not many people do it, but then to have something like that open up the world is pretty awesome, being able to travel and meeting a bunch of characters from all over the place,” said McLean, the 1997 Maui News MIL Boy Athlete of the Year. “That’s probably what’s been the most rewarding thing, just meeting an array of people who are very talented and very passionate about what they do.”
McLean, now 41, moved back to Maui in March with his wife Seun Augustus, who was a long jumper for Nigeria, and their 3-year-old son Ola just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. They are in the midst of fixing up a home they recently purchased in Spreckelsville.
After leaving the islands for school and a track and field career, he had hoped to return to raise a family.
“I wanted to be in a place that was welcoming, that was really important to us,” said McLean, who owns two commercial fishing boats in Alaska and works in film production.
Prior to high school, he had only known what pole vault was from watching the Olympics on television. After watching a fellow teammate practicing the event one day at school, McLean was intrigued.
“I just thought it looked so fun,” he recalled, saying he went straight over to the jump pit and talked to Allen Duarte. The then-St. Anthony track and field coach — who has since become a longtime friend — immediately gave McLean a pole.
“At a very young age it’s hard to tell for sure how good someone is going to be, but I definitely knew he had the potential to be very good for sure,” said Duarte, himself a state pole vault champion for the Trojans in 1980 and ’81 who has coached multiple state winners and medalists over the past few decades. “He was an exceptional athlete, that was obvious, but it’s very rare, and he was one of the rare individuals, when your most talented athlete is also your hardest working athlete.”
As a sophomore, McLean finished runner-up at the state tournament. He said it was a “really beneficial experience for me,” noting that it made him “more hungry and focused” throughout his athletic career.
McLean’s HHSAA meet record of 15 feet, 3 inches set in 1997 still stands and was only tied in 2019 by Waiakea’s Eric Cabais-Fernandez.
“He was hardworking and had a ferocious mindset, he wanted to work hard, he wanted to do whatever it took to excel,” Duarte said of McLean. “He was not intimidated by failing at something. If he wasn’t good at something, he worked hard to get better at it.”
While competing at the University of California at Berkeley, he vaulted personal bests of 18-8.5 outdoors and 18-6.5 indoors. He graduated in 2002 as the third-best pole vaulter in school history and with multiple All-American honors.
McLean competed professionally for the next eight years, vaulting a personal best 18-8.75. Prior to his 2004 Olympic Trials appearance in Sacramento, he was ranked No. 8 in the nation.
“It was a learning experience, you know, of course you want to make the Olympic team and compete there, but it’s funny how life works out because I was actually filming and that was the next career path for me after pole vaulting,” he said. “It all worked out in the end.
“That’s pole vault; you try and you miss and life goes on.”
That year, McLean and a few friends completed their first documentary called “The Pole Vaulter’s Dream,” filming behind the scenes of competition and travel. About 1,000 copies were made and sold out “pretty quickly.”
“Some of our good friends got first, second and seventh at the Olympics, and we’d been following them all year, and I was able to go to Athens and sneak into the stadium with a camera and get a bunch of awesome footage,” he said with a laugh. “Then our computer got stolen and we lost all the footage and everything, so it was kind of like a limited release of these pole vault documentaries.”
McLean took a year off and made another similar documentary in 2007, capturing the journey of more winners at the world championships in Osaka, Japan.
Inspired by film and television production, he applied to graduate school at the University of Southern California to continue his studies. To afford tuition, he would work on a fishing boat in Alaska over the summer and then pick up freelance jobs in film with his wife the remaining months of the year. He graduated in 2014.
Pole vaulting was “integral in my life path,” McLean said, adding that the sport is what led him to college, Alaska, his career, family, and now back to Maui.
“It’s the mental aspects of it, it’s the physical aspects of it, it’s feeding off your competition and pushing each other to the better, but also being supported by your peers,” he said. “It’s just a really neat environment and I think that it’s definitely had a huge affect on my life, whether it’s working on my films or I’m fishing, it’s both similar in that there’s a lot of adrenaline in all three of those arenas, including pole vaulting.”
In past seasons, McLean has helped coach St. Anthony and Baldwin pole vaulters. He said he is “really thankful for that opportunity” to work with the tracksters — with some becoming state champions — and to watch them progress. He plans to coach again when MIL sports resume.
“Everyone over here was always so encouraging and helpful and I definitely feel like it’s my responsibility to share whatever knowledge I gained, and also to continue to learn because there’s no one right way to pole vault,” he said. “Each person is unique and it’s about figuring out that puzzle to help them to maximize their potential.”
Duarte said having someone like McLean helping out the program is an “invaluable experience.”
“It’s funny, I was his mentor for many years and then he comes back with world-class coaching and knowledge and the roles kind of switch,” he said. “I learn from him… . we’ve become really good friends. As well as being a super good athlete, he comes from a good family, and he’s just a terrific all-around guy.”
As someone who is considering competing again in Masters track and field if time permits, McLean offered some advice to student-athletes of the Valley Isle.
“I think it’s really important to get outside of your comfort level, and try things that might interest you,” he said. “For me, I did a crazy sport like the pole vault, something that not many people know about, but it’s something like that that can open up the world. There’s just so many amazing opportunities out there and it’s just about finding something that you’re interested in and doing your best at it.”
* Dakota Grossman is at dgrossman @mauinews.com