The image of pole vault icon Bob Richards’ smiling face is still vividly etched in my mind. He was the first athlete to grace the front of the famous Wheaties cereal box.
Over many a morning meal, I remember being entranced with the idea of a man launching himself 15 feet in the air, propelled only by his own momentum and a rigid metal pole.
Almost as amazing to me was the fact that one could survive the fall from that height into a thin bed of wood shavings.
The element of danger and the prospect of flying was high-octane additive for a young lad who had just consumed his Wheaties.
I obtained a bamboo pole (used to carry rolls of carpet) from a friend’s dad. My brothers and I set up a backyard vaulting pit using 2 x 4s as standards and a thin piece of corner moulding as a crossbar. Carefully spaced nails in the 2 x 4s provided a serviceable height adjustment. Several wheelbarrow loads of sand became the landing area.
I’m sure the sight of our industry would have inspired a Norman Rockwell painting.
From those humble beginnings (and after a transition to a metal pole), two milestone achievements have stuck with me over the years: I managed a vault of eight feet in elementary school and increased that to 11 feet in junior high school.
I was already setting my sights on new horizons in high school.
The sport has never been the same since.
The rigid tubular aluminum poles became obsolete almost overnight – and the century-old technique of vaulting with a rigid pole went the way of the dinosaur as well.
It was my good fortune to have witnessed this quantum leap in the sport – and equally my misfortune to endure a forced return to the proverbial drawing board in my training.
Everything from the planting of the pole to the fly-away at the top had to be de-programmed and re-learned.
But it was inevitable. At the elite levels, rigid-pole vaulting had nearly reached its peak. Athletes could not generate the runway speed necessary to overcome the leverage problems created by longer poles.
Indeed, the world record had hovered in the 15-foot range for nearly 20 years.
In my sophomore year of high school, my vaulting buddies and I were like cavemen discovering fire as we experimented with the new poles. It must have been a comical sight to behold three curious Neanderthals as they were hurled about by the rubbery sticks.
Coach found some instructional film and in time, we learned to control the things. That sophomore year was spent in studying and practicing a whole new way of vaulting.
The old, stiff poles required much more upper body strength to literally pull one’s own body weight up and over the bar. The new fiberglass poles used the stored energy in the flex of the pole to do more of the heavy lifting.
Tumbling and trampoline work were popular cross-training methods employed to develop the acrobatics necessary at the top end of the vault.
Choosing the right pole in relation to the vaulter’s weight and controlling the bend of the pole are both critical elements to the successful modern vaulter.
Today’s fiberglass and carbon fiber poles are very temperature sensitive as well, and the stiffness factor built into each pole can be critical – especially in outdoor meets.
As a junior, I finally began to get the hang of the new pole and increased my PR to 12 feet. The following year, I vaulted 13-7 at the district qualifier for the State Championships. The state high school record at that time was 14-6.
Today, high schoolers are vaulting 18 feet.
Pioneers I remember from those early days of flex-pole vaulting are John Pennell, Brian Sternberg and Bob Seagren. They, and others, took an already exciting event and literally elevated it to new levels.
Pole vaulting (both men’s and women’s) is now one of the most popular and technically demanding events in Track and Field. The current world record, set by Ukrainian Sergey Bubka in 1994, is over 20 feet.
It’s been 16 years since that standard was set. Is it time for a new innovation?
In the next installment of Rojo Remembers, I take a personal look at another event which was transformed during that same time frame: the high jump. My contemporary and former cross-valley rival, Dick Fosbury literally turned the event upside down.
Rojo Fact: Casey Carrigan, out of Puyallup, Washington, made the 1968 Olympic team as a 17 year old pole vaulter. He set the national high school record of 17-4 in 1969 – quite a feat, considering Pennell’s world record at the time was 17-9.
Watch video clip
(Wheaties image courtesy of General Mills)