SI Vault
 
I Am Woman, Watch Me Soar
Merrell Noden
February 23, 1998
The first female pole vaulting at the Millrose Games was a sight to behold
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February 23, 1998

I Am Woman, Watch Me Soar

The first female pole vaulting at the Millrose Games was a sight to behold

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In 90 previous runnings the Millrose Games had seen more than its share of eye-catching pole vaulters, from Cornelius Warmerdam, who cleared a world record of 15'?" with a bamboo pole in 1942, to Bob Richards, the Vaulting Vicar, who won an astonishing 11 straight Millrose titles from 1947 to '57 on poles of steel. In the fiberglass age Steve Smith in '73 became the first to clear 18 feet indoors, and Sergei Bubka, the greatest vaulter of all, set the meet record of 19'2�" two years ago.

Last Friday night a near capacity crowd of 17,765 turned up at Madison Square Garden to watch the Millrose Games and toast the meet's eight most outstanding performers in the 30-year history of the "new" Garden, from diminutive high jumper Franklin Jacobs to milers Eamonn Coghlan and Mary Slaney. But as happy as the crowd was to dwell on the past, it also showed its eagerness to embrace the future.

For the first time Millrose included a women's pole vault. From the moment Samantha Shepard, a precocious eighth-grader from Weston, Mass., sailed over the opening height of 11'�" to the attempts by American-record holder Stacy Dragila and Janine Whitlock of Great Britain to clear a world indoor record of 14'6�", the crowd gave its heart to the female vaulters, urging them down the runway by clapping rhythmically and cheering lustily—very lustily. These women seemed to have muscles everywhere, some of the muscles sheathed in skintight Lycra, some of them not. Dragila was asked whether the greatest selling point of the women's vault might turn out to be aesthetic. "You know," she said with the grin of a very good sport, "I wouldn't mind if the guys vaulted with their shirts off."

Only a few years ago it was possible to say of the women's vault what Samuel Johnson said of women preaching and dogs walking on their hind legs: "It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

No more. The women's world indoor vault record is tumbling so often these days that it was broken twice in the 10 days before the meet and twice more the day after the meet. At press time the world standard was 14'6�", set last Saturday at a meet in Sweden by 20-year-old Vala Flosadottir of Iceland. Jan Johnson, the bronze medalist in the 1972 Olympic vault and now coach of Sky Jumpers Vertical Sports Club in Atascadero, Calif., says that more than half the kids coming into his program are girls. "Some of the boys jump on testosterone," he says, "but the girls seem to have the patience to learn good form and technique."

Sixteen states now have the event at the high school level. This spring the women's vault will make its debut at the NCAA outdoor championships, and in 1999 it will be included in the world outdoor championships. It hasn't been approved for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, but its chances can't be hurt by the fact that, for the moment at least, the best vaulter in the world is Emma George of Australia.

"This is the best illustration that women can do all the things men can do," says Casey Roche, who coaches the men and women vaulters at Stanford. "Women proved it in gymnastics, and this is a gymnastics event. They'll make 15'5" this year and 16 feet soon."

The vault probably combines more athletic skills than any other track and field event: sprint speed, upper-body strength and gymnastic body control. Courage, or at least recklessness, also helps. "My women, mentally and physically, are as tough as my men," says Roche. "One vaulted with a broken hand, one with a broken foot. I don't think any of my guys could have done that."

Like any new sports activity, women's pole vaulting is attracting curious athletes from a variety of backgrounds, many of whom possess the any-thing-goes mentality that flourishes on any frontier. The 24-year-old George, who holds the world outdoor record of 14'11", was a circus performer long before she was a conventional athlete. Her parents put her in an Australian troupe called the Flying Fruit Fly Circus when she was eight, and she specialized in trapeze and balancing acts, such as doing handstands atop six stacked chairs. Though no one could have appreciated it at the time, that was the perfect preparation for the vault. Flosadottir, Iceland's first world-record holder in any track and field event, is a former high jumper. "She's six feet tall, which gives her great leverage," says Whitlock.

The women's vault has opened a new world for some athletes. "I thought after my college career was over, I would get married and go on with my life," says Dragila, who was a volleyball player and hurdler at Placer High in Auburn, Calif., and a good-but-not-great heptathlete at Idaho State before her coach suggested she give the vault a try. She made her first successful leap in the spring of 1993, clearing six feet in a state of mortal terror. "I wanted to hold my pole close," she says. Now she does high-bar and trampoline work to overcome the natural human reluctance to hang upside down. When someone suggested that at 26, she was a founding mother of the event, she swiftly corrected him: "Grandmother!"

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