It was the web post that caught Sean Clarke’s eye.
A startup was seeking volunteers for COVID-19 vaccine trials, and the 22-year-old was eager to do something good. This seemed like the perfect match. So he signed up.
“It was a right-place-at-the-right-time kind of thing,” Clarke said. “We’re at a pivotal point in society, and I felt I would be remiss if I didn’t try to help people. Here was an opportunity right in front of me.”
A 2020 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Clarke studied mechanical engineering and is one of the country’s top college pole vaulters. He’s headed to grad school at Texas A&M and plans to keep vaulting since, due to lost time over the last two seasons because of injuries, he still has a year of NCAA athletic eligibility during which to compete.
Clarke grew up restless, always looking for new ways to make a difference in the world. His parents, actor Brian Patrick Clarke and Olympic gymnast Kathy Johnson Clarke, still tell stories of him standing up to bullies in the school yard, growing his hair to donate for wigs for sick children, and choosing to attend a school with a more diverse student body over another more homogeneous school that had better athletic facilities.
Across his back, from shoulder blade to shoulder blade, is a tattoo, “Skinner Strong,” in honor and memory of deceased high school friend and teammate Joe Skinner.
“He was always a risk-taker,” his mother said. “We’ve always admired his patience when it comes to other people. One of his teachers said she most admired his humanity.”
Over these last five grueling months, like many around him, the coronavirus has been Clarke’s focus.
“I look at it this way: If people don’t help develop a vaccine for this, I will contract it,” he said.
Clarke has experience combating disease. He watched his father battle prostate cancer in 2018 and an unidentified COVID-like infection this spring from which he has recovered. It was seeing how those struggles wracked his family with worry and fear that led Clarke to confront COVID-19.
“I’ve been very lucky in my life,” said Clarke, who was born in Los Angeles and moved to Central Florida with his family when he was 7. “It started with my parents and the kind of role models they were.”
Clarke said his mother, a gymnast on the U.S. Olympic team that boycotted the 1980 Summer Games in Russia, had to wait four more years to compete, and that taught him “perseverance and courage to dig deeper.” His father showed that family was more important than career by “turning down [acting] auditions to be with and take care of the people he loved.”
“What I’m looking to do with this is to maybe help older generations,” Clarke said, “those who, like my parents, could be really affected by this disease.”
To that end, Clarke signed on with 1Day Sooner, a new organization that solicits volunteers to test potential vaccines by being directly exposed to COVID-19 in research studies. The group said it has collected commitments from more than 32,000 people in 140 countries. The idea is that the sooner a vaccine can be tested and approved, the sooner COVID-19 can be controlled.
More than 655,000 people worldwide have died from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Due to the health risks, which include death in this case, participating in such trials is controversial, and ethical concerns are still being debated. Clarke said he received pushback from some of his Penn teammates when he urged them to join him.
These “human challenge trials” can speed up development of vaccines, which appeals to Clarke. But, critics say, there is no guarantee that anything will result. And if volunteers are stricken in the process, there is no antidote to the disease to save them.
In May, the World Health Organization published a 19-page document that addressed the controversy, saying that “there are numerous prominent historical examples of unethical research involving deliberate infection of research subjects.” But “there is a consensus among ethicists who have reflected upon human challenge studies that the intentional infection of research participants can be ethically acceptable under certain conditions, such as those in which modern challenge studies are conducted.”
Unlike his decision to sign on with 1Day Sooner, Penn was not a no-brainer for Clarke when it came to picking a college four years ago. His father and older brother Cary both went to Yale, and Clarke was interested in Princeton and the Air Force Academy. He is drawn to public service and would like one day to work for the FBI or DEA as a field agent, preferably in the violent crimes unit.
But Penn was one of the first schools to contact Clarke about his pole-vaulting future, and Quakers assistant coach Joe Klim impressed Clarke with his personable approach. “He wasn’t a salesman,” Clarke said.
The deal was sealed when Clarke visited the Penn campus, just west of Center City. Expecting to be disillusioned by the Philly cityscape, Clarke was inspired by the diversity of the people, the walkability of the place, and the pulse of life on campus. “It broadened my horizons,” he said.
Clarke knew he made the right choice once he got to Franklin Field. The 5-foot-7, 145-pound rookie fit in with his new teammates immediately, and soon felt the aura of that special weekend in April each year.
“I had heard about the Penn Relays,” he said, referring to the famous five-day high school and college track meet that is billed as the largest in the world. “But I was not expecting the excitement and connection it generated with the city. "
A soccer player in middle school, a young Clarke happened to see some pole vaulters one day when his father, a track enthusiast, took him to the Florida high school state championship meet. Clarke was intrigued, so he tried the pole vault himself. He was a natural and improved so quickly that he put soccer on the shelf.
At Lyman High School, he hit his stride, becoming a three-time state champion. Clarke defines vaulting as gymnastics on a pole and said it’s not surprising he embraced it since his mother won silver and bronze medals in gymnastics at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Clarke’s pole vault career at Penn was a dream. As a freshman in 2017, he placed 15th in the NCAA outdoor championships and made second team all-American. As a sophomore in 2018, he won the Ivy League outdoor heptagonal championship, and the following year was 13th at the 2019 NCAA outdoor championships and again made second-team all-American.
Clarke’s best vault in competition is 18-1, he said, but he’s jumped 18-4 in practice. His COVID-19 commitment may be his highest leap ever.