It’s hard to avoid the cliché “Continues to raise the bar,” when describing the path of Clayton Fritsch’s pole vaulting career.
The 2017 graduate from Sealy High School twice qualified for the state meet in Austin which helped him secure a roster spot with the Sam Houston State Bearkats where he became the first in school history to earn All-American honors in both the indoor and outdoor circuits in the same year.
Before his sophomore year was over, he left the country for the first two times in his life to represent USA Track and Field at the North American, Central American and Caribbean Athletics Association (NACAC) U-23 Championships in Queretaro, Mexico, and the Pan-American Games in Lima, Peru, where he medaled in both meets.
That makes two his lucky number: Two trips to the state meet in high school, two All-American bids and two international medals after just his second year of college.
The weight all of those titles together is certainly significant and Fritsch noted on his way back from his first taste of international competition, a gold medal from the NACAC Championships along with the meet record, that it may take a little bit to realize he was truly living his dream.
“On the way back was when I was really starting to think about it; waiting on the plane I was just super happy to go and compete for USA, that’s always been a dream and to win the meet was that much better,” he said in an interview last July. “Even not having a coach there (and still getting those results) really brought a lot of confidence knowing what I can do.”
His event coach maintains that despite all of that success, Fritsch remains level-headed and one of the best teammates you could wish for.
“Ask anything of him, he’s going to get it done,” said Bearkats’ jumping coach Cutter Bernard. “He’s one of the guys that you can count on; if I’ve got something going on between cross country meets, recruiting, whatever, it’s like, ‘Hey, Clayton, I need this to get done,’ and he’s rocking and rolling. We’re excited and blessed to have him here.”
Although it might not have exactly been like a love at first sight, head coach David Self elaborated on when it clicked in his mind that Fritsch needed to be on the campus of Sam Houston State.
“I had a chance to watch him jump, and he’ll remember this, we were at Katy Tompkins and here comes this kind of tall, lanky guy and he’s got two poles with him and I thought, ‘This is the guy that Cutter told us about?’” Self recounted. “Then he goes down the runway, he plants the pole and I’m like, ‘Well, OK, there’s a little ability here,’ and I think he won that day and I remember texting Coach Bernhard going, ‘Yeah, this guy’s got it.’”
It was only a matter of time before he got to learn more about Fritsch and it became increasingly evident that he was going to find success in Huntsville.
“I had a chance to chat with him briefly at the meet and I got to meet Mom and Dad and when you meet the parents you get a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into as far as the person. Being a small-town guy myself, I was kind of like, ‘OK, I bet he’s probably baled hay before,’” Self added. “We’re a pretty blue-collar team and I had a chance to spend a pretty good amount of time with him on his visit. Through more talking with Mom and Dad, we just knew that he was kind of guy that we wanted our program.”
Luckily enough for the coaches, Fritsch felt the same way and decided to make Sam Houston his next home, but it wasn’t solely based on the athletic aspect.
“The biggest (schools) were Sam Houston and Incarnate Word. I talked to a few other schools but those are the ones I went on visits with,” Fritsch said. “What it really came down to was, my mom kind of put this in my head, she asked ‘Where would you want to go to school if you didn’t have track and field?’ Before I even thought about coming here for track and field it was one of the schools on my list of if I didn’t go anywhere, I’d go there. They have my major, they have my minors, it fit in well and I have friends and people from Sealy that are here, so it’s been a pretty comfortable decision.”
Seeing some familiar faces every so often certainly never hurts but there’s a fire that burns inside of him which was sparked during his playing days in Sealy that has made him want to be part of the legendary company people think of when inquiring about that town on I-10 between Houston and San Antonio.
“There are other guys out there; Ricky Seals-Jones is out there making it in the NFL and stuff. I always looked at that Eric Dickerson sign on the football field and thinking, 'I want to be that guy some time,' where you've made Sealy proud,” Fritsch said. “You're doing what you do for a town and you have the support that they have given me and I just, I'm in debt to them always.
“Sealy just has a big place in my heart, for sure,” he continued. “I could see myself going back there in a few years and settling down because that environment is what I like. I could see myself raising a family there. I mean, Sealy's just a great town, honestly, and to have all the friends and family and family friends there, it's good to know that those people have your back and you have their back.”
However, all of this could have just been an afterthought had Fritsch’s eventual high school jumping coach sat on his hands and let an opportunity to help him out pass by.
“I remember going to a track meet early on, my son was a couple years younger than him,” said Jeff Brandes, who owns and operates Visual Promotions in Sealy as his day job and coaches pole vaulters on top of that. “I was watching some of these kids and I saw (Clayton) walking across carrying a pole and I noticed his Mom was with him, it might have been seventh grade, eighth grade year. I saw him jump a few times and I thought that kid might have some potential, but I didn’t think too much of it other than the fact that I remember sitting back talking with my wife saying, ‘Should I or shouldn’t I?’ not real certain. Finally, I got the nerve I talked to his Mom and said, ‘Hey, who’s working with you guys? And would you like me to come out sometime?’”
The Fritschs accepted and before long a strong connection was made.
“I remember I went out and they were real opening and welcoming to it,” Brandes said. “I started working with them a little bit and I said, ‘If you like it, I can come back. If not, I’m cool.’ And we seemed to hit it off real well, I think after about two or three times he started calling me coach and I felt comfortable.
“Then he started trusting me and I think what’s very important in any athlete-coach relationship is you have trust, especially when your life’s dangerous in some cases,” he continued. “Once we gained that trust with one another, I realized that he’s got quite a bit of potential but I never knew exactly how much potential because our time was limited between baseball, football, basketball, a lot of different things; which all those things are really good but it was hard to identify exactly that one sport.
“I did feel like there was something there and I knew that if he could continue trusting in me and we could work together and he would even forgive me for some of my coaching mistakes that I made along the way then I knew that he could do something special,” Brandes said.
Another person who concurred with that thought might not have been hands-on with the team in terms of coaching but certainly had an added stake in how the athletes performed.
Oscar Ortiz, assistant athletic trainer and assigned to the track and cross country teams Fritsch’s first two years, marveled at the quality of his work ethic at such a young age.
“For him to be as hard-working as he is at 18, 19 years old is just amazing,” he said. “He’s definitely got that drive to hopefully be part of an Olympic team in the near future, whether it be 2020 or 2024. I can definitely see that happening, I hope it does and I’m going to follow him whether I’m with him or not.”
Coach Bernhard agrees that the Olympics are certainly on the table and although that may be a loud statement to make at this juncture, he has faith in Fritsch.
“Looking ahead, he's kind of shown me that nothing's impossible to an extent," said Bernhard. "I agree with him in the fact that Tokyo 2020 is definitely on the map. That's a bold statement to make but I think he has proven that it's legitimate.
“I mean, you're five centimeters under an Olympic standard, last time I looked, he was in the top 30 in the world,” Bernhard continued, referencing Fritsch’s 24th-place world rank and No. 4 slot in the country as of Sept. 17, 2019. “As crazy as it sounds, it's legitimate. There are guys that made Olympic teams that are far less jumpers than he is so it can be done now, it's just what we do we have to do to get it there.”
After that, the professional ranks could be the next-highest bar Fritsch will look to clear, an aspect he’s already thinking of.
"That 'pro' word, I want that title, I think that'd be cool to have and carry around,” he admitted. “My cousin made for a little bit, so to kind of follow like him and then try to do a little bit more (is the goal right now).”
Coach Self agrees that there is a real possibility that happens although he tries not to allow everyone to think that way when signing up to be a Bearkat.
“Guys that are jumping this high at 19, 20 years old seriously have to start thinking, ‘OK, I can do this and make money,’” Self said. “That’s one of my spiels in our recruiting process; I tell people, ‘You’re probably not going to make money in track and field, you’re here to get a degree and you’re here to compete, that’s really your two big things.’ Some farm factory for professional track, that’s not who we are as a program but he’s in a position now where 5.76m (18 feet 10.25 inches) has won multiple Olympic gold medals. It’s kind of one of those things where he’s doing it in the U.S., any other place in the world he’d (probably be an Olympian).”
Whether it does happen or not, Brandes knows this was all meant to be.
“Yeah, it's a big deal but he's the right man for the job,” he said of Fritsch’s international and possible Olympic career. “He's well rounded and he's modest, he doesn't take advantage of the situation, he's gonna take an inch and he'll ask for a little more when he can. He's gonna represent our community very well, which he already has, and he's still got a lot ahead of him.
“You got to set your goals high, they have to be measurable, attainable, and they have to be a challenge,” Brandes continued. “For him to get (to the Olympics), it's going to be a challenge and it's obviously measurable and it's attainable. But it's gonna take a lot of work between now and then and a lot of determination just like for everyone, so, can he get it done? If he puts in the work and effort and stays with it he can get it done.”
At the end of the day, Fritsch describes himself as a simple young man with lots of faith in the Lord, willing to ride the wave He’s got planned for him.
“I'd say I'm pretty simple. There's not too much to me but I've learned from other people and hung out with the right crowds and I've been set up for a good life. I won't say I regret any of the decisions I've made about coming to Sam Houston or anything like that. It's all come out for a reason, it's all been this plan I'm just kind of living in it. God's got this plan for me and I'm trusting in Him that he's gonna take me where I want to go,” Fritsch said.