PROVO, Utah — Rick and Brenda Weirich raised black angus cattle, horses, hogs, chickens, nine children and seven pole vaulters on their 20 acres of Texas hill country, not to mention five BYU track and field athletes (and counting).
Talk about convenient. The Weirichs have served as a farm team for the Cougars. This year's team includes three Weirich brothers — Victor, Brian and Josh. They are following in the footsteps of two older brothers who competed for the team a few years ago — Chris and Matt. Their younger brother Kevin, who is serving a Church mission, is probably going to join the Cougars in the future.
"I don't think anything like this has ever happened," says head coach Mark Robison. "It's pretty amazing to have five kids from one family on the team."
Can any Division 1 school claim to have five brothers who competed for one of its teams (soon to be six)? The three Arrhenius brothers — Dan, Nik and Leif — once competed for the Cougars (not all at once), as did their father Anders. But the Weirichs have topped them.
"They've been providing us good athletes for a decade," says distance coach Ed Eyestone.
The Weirichs are more than a novelty act. Three of the brothers have claimed All-American honors and all five of them have placed in the conference championships. Four of the brothers have cleared heights ranging from 15 feet, 9 inches to 18 feet in the pole vault. At the Mountain West Conference championships earlier this year, Josh finished sixth in the seven-event heptathlon, while Brian placed second in the 800 and Victor won the pole vault.
"They are an incredibly talented athletic family," says Robison.
For the record, the Weirich family consists of nine children — two girls and seven boys. All of the boys began their track careers as pole vaulters.
"It started in middle school," says Rick. "The older boys started pole vaulting and they seemed to like it. It took off from there. That became our sport."
Rick built a training facility on the family ranch near Fredericksburg (population 9,000). It included gymnastics rings, chin-up bars and other exercise equipment. Rick also built a 10-foot-high wooden platform on the side of the house. The boys swung from a rope out and over a bungee cord that served as a bar and was suspended over a pit filled with foam rubber.
"You'd stand on the platform and someone would throw the rope up to you," says Victor. "The pit was 15 feet from the platform and the rope was 10 feet away. Luckily, nobody ever got hurt, but we did have some crazy experiences. Sometimes someone wouldn't let go and he'd swing back into the platform."
Chris, who last competed for BYU in 2007, cleared 16 feet, 2 3/4 inches in college while focusing mostly on the multi-events. He placed as high as second in the heptathlon in the Mountain Western Conference indoor championships.
"He was a fearless vaulter," says Robison. "Then during his junior year the poor kid didn't get deep enough into the pit and came down sideways and tore up his knee. He never did recover."
Matt, a year younger than Chris, raised the bar, literally. He cleared 16-8 3/4 in high school and won the Texas state championships and the Adidas National Championships. At BYU, he became an All-American by placing fifth in the NCAA championships, clearing 17 feet, 10 1/2 inches.
"When he was a freshman and struggling in the vault, I made him try the decathlon at the conference meet and he placed third," says Robison. "He had never even done some of the events."
Perhaps his courage with heights saved his life in some way. During a day off while serving an LDS Church mission in Australia, he slipped and fell off a 100-meter cliff (some 328 feet — or more than three football fields high) — at the Grand Canyon lookout in Moreton National Park. Trees slowed his descent and tore off almost all his clothes. He was lost for 20 hours and presumed dead. Miraculously, after spending a night in freezing conditions, he was found alive and made a full recovery.
"His parents called me before they found him, and they were devastated," says Robison. "Matt has never liked to talk about it."
Brian, a senior at BYU, began his track career as a vaulter in middle school, but quit in the eighth-grade because of his little brother. "Victor was beating me by a foot and he wasn't even competing or practicing every day," says Brian. He became a middle-distance runner instead, which proved to be a good move. In March, Brian ran the first leg of BYU's national championship distance medley relay team in the NCAA indoor championships. He has run 1:49.9 for 800 meters and an altitude adjusted time of 3:42 for 1,500 meters. He's easy to spot on the track. At 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, he's an SUV running against Honda Civics on the track.
"It's him and a bunch of 140 pounders," says Eyestone. "He's a bruiser out there."
Victor, a sophomore, can claim the family record in the pole vault, with a best mark of 18 feet, 0 1/2 inches. While Brian was winning a national championship at the NCAA meet, Victor was placing fifth in the pole vault. Like Matt, he was a terrific high school vaulter, clearing 16-7 3/4.
"Victor was like Matt," says Robison. "He was a very good vaulter."
Josh Weirich, a freshman who returned last year from a mission, has focused on the decathlon at BYU, like Chris. It certainly suits his versatility. Besides clearing 15 feet, 9 inches in the pole vault in high school, he also has jumped 6-8 in the high jump and covered the 100-meter high hurdles in 14.99.
"Josh is going to be very good," says Robison. "He's still learning the other events and getting his missionary legs back."
Meanwhile, the next brother in the Weirich lineup is Kevin, another 15-foot pole vaulter who is serving a mission. His dad believes he will wind up at BYU (Darren, the youngest of the boys and a 13-foot vaulter, joined the Navy).
The Weirichs' farm team will be stocking the BYU track roster for years to come.