GAINESVILLE — Hunter Mallard was born to soar.
It took some time to realize that fact, but it became apparent as soon as the Gainesville High athlete attempted his first pole vault.
"I was a thrower -- discus -- in middle school, but I was obviously too small for that, so I was looking for something different, and I saw the pole vault and decided to give that a try. That was my freshman year, and it was fun and I started winning, so I stuck with it," Mallard said. "(Former Gainesville track) coach 'Ski' (Nick Nieselowski) called me a freak of nature. I'm stronger than I look, and I'm also pretty fast."
Call him a freak, a natural, whatever. There is no denying that Mallard is a champion -- he claimed the Class AAAAA pole vault title as a sophomore. And on Thursday the senior will gun for yet another crown, as he competes at the GHSA state track and field championships for Classes AAAAAA and AAAAA in Carrollton. (NOTE: For a look at all northeast Georgia athletes qualified for the three state meet venues spread around the state, simply click here.)
Yet Mallard has much higher aspirations than a state crown, as he pushes himself to out-vault former Gainesville star and his current coach Paul Malquist.
"I practice alongside him, and he pushes me constantly," Mallard said of Malquist -- who still owns the all-classification state record after clearing 16-8 in 2010. "He's clearing 17-4 consistently now, and he's cleared 18-6 before. Coach Malquist got me a lot stonger and faster, and it's paying off."
As it stands, Mallard enters the meet with the best pole vault mark across all classifications this season, having cleared 16-2 at the Hall County championships in March (a meet in which he missed clearing 16-6 by the slimmest of margins).
"Fifteen feet is a pretty easy height for me now, and 16, I'm getting comfy with it," Mallard said. "I hope to do something special at state. It's got to be warm -- I don't like the cold at all, and I want just a small, consistent breeze, so I know where it's coming from."
Thursday's forecast in Carrollton calls for partly cloudy skies and low 80s.
"I just want to get that first vault out of the way and get the butterflies out," Mallard said. "I'm always nervous, even after going to state three times."
That said, Mallard is also aiming higher than a GHSA crown, as the senior hopes to pole vault collegiately and beyond.
"I'm probably going to Georgia Tech; the pole vault coach there is an amazing coach, and I want to win the NCAAs," Mallard said. "My ultimate dream is to be in the 2020 Olympics. To do that the qualifying height is around 18-6, 18-9. I hope to get to that level; I want to go all the way. I won't be content till I get to the Olympics. I love this sport too much."
That is reflected in Mallard's work habits. And while he may have been a natural, his growth in the sport has soared thanks in large part to a willingness to train and attention to detail.
"I analyze video like nobody's business; I watch on my phone, YouTube; I watch the pros; I watch anything looking for that edge," Mallard said. "Natural talent only takes you so far, and I've been out here practicing a lot -- since my freshman year I've never stopped."
On Thursday, Mallard will look to keep vaulting -- right into the history books.