July 2, 1963, was a languorous summer day in Seattle. With the rain in abeyance until autumn, residents had an unobstructed view of Mount Rainier piercing a cobalt-blue sky. John F. Kennedy was president of the U.S., the cold war had reached a roiling boil, the Beatles had yet to break into the charts in America, and Brian Sternberg, a junior-to-be at Washington, was the world's best pole vaulter.
In April, at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, Sternberg had used a state-of-the-art fiberglass pole to vault 16'5", eclipsing the mark of 16'2�" set by Finland's Pentti Nikula. A month later, at a meet in Modesto, Calif., Sternberg cleared 16'7" to break his own world record. He broke it again in June, when he vaulted 16'8" at a meet in Compton, Calif. "I had no doubt he was going to be the first man to clear 20 feet," says Stan Hiserman, who was then Sternberg's coach. "That's how good he was."
Sternberg often practiced his vaulting technique on a trampoline, particularly when his shinsplints bothered him. On July 2, three days before he was to leave for Moscow to compete against the Soviet Union in a dual meet, Sternberg was "goofing around," as he puts it, on the trampoline. He attempted a double somersault with a twist, a maneuver, he says, he had completed "thousands of times." He took a few warmup bounces to gain momentum and then bounded skyward. In the amount of time it will take you to read this sentence, his life was changed forever.
"I'm still not really sure what happened," says Sternberg, now 55. "I remember seeing my arms and legs sort of bouncing in front of my body and not being able to do anything about it." Had he landed a few centimeters to the left or right, had he made a minor adjustment in the air, he might have walked away, perhaps with a bruise. But he landed on the trampoline awkwardly, on his neck, and suffered a dislocated cervical vertebra, an injury that laymen call a broken neck. "My first thought was that I was going to miss the chance to go to Russia," says Sternberg. "Then I couldn't really feel anything, so I started yelling, 'I'm paralyzed! I'm paralyzed!' "
Looking at Sternberg today, you might find it hard to believe that more than 35 years have passed since his career-ending injury. He is strikingly handsome, impeccably groomed, the possessor of a disarming smile and a razor-sharp wit. In his bedroom on the first floor of his mother's house in Seattle's Queen Anne Hill district, he wakes up to a view of the Washington campus. "People ask if I'm mad at the world or mad at God, but being mad doesn't do me any good," he says. "Sometimes I feel I was cheated a bit, but what can I do about it?"
Sternberg wants no pity, but when pressed, he admits that his convalescence, which has spanned eight presidential administrations, has often been excruciating. Tethered to a high-tech wheelchair, he requires upward of two hours to get showered and dressed in the morning. He suffers from short-term memory loss as a result of a near deadly allergic reaction to medication back in 1976. Though he is a quadriplegic, he can move his shoulders, but his limbs ache. Until recently his blood and oxygen circulation were so poor that he would pass out from the slightest exertion. "It hasn't been easy," he says. "Just as with pole vaulting, I still set goals. When something like this happens, you just have to cope as best you can."
Sternberg, a former physics major whose vocational ambition was to teach high school science, has used his ingenuity to make life bearable. With a device fashioned from a chopstick, he can depress a mouse with his mouth, which enables him to write and draw on an agonizingly slow computer. The autodial and speakerphone functions make it possible for him to call friends and receive calls. He keeps the remote control to the television and VCR close by, and he spends hours trolling the airways as an amateur ham radio operator.
Beyond the gadgets and electronic amenities, Sternberg's room is a shrine to flight. Posters of jets, fighter planes and eagles adorn the walls and ceiling. The most arresting airborne images, though, are black-and-white photographs of Sternberg in his prime, sailing over a metal bar. With bulbous shoulder and arm muscles and thick, powerful calves beneath even thicker thighs, he was the picture of the golden-boy athlete. Says Hiserman, who still visits his former star every few months, "Brian had strength, speed, agility, technique—everything you need to be an outstanding pole vaulter."
In the days after his fall, Sternberg's plight was international news. While rehabilitating for 10 months in a Seattle hospital, he received more than 5,000 letters—all of which he has kept. He took calls from well-wishing dignitaries. The Soviet track team, armed with roses, visited while it was in Seattle for a meet. But eventually, as Sternberg puts it, "people started to get on with their lives." The stream of visitors slowed to a trickle, the bundles of mail shrank, and his health insurance from the university lapsed. "I would get down a little bit," he says. "But then I would think about the other kids who were paralyzed and never had the kind of support I did."
In addition to emotional buttressing, Sternberg's vast network has also provided financial support. Largely thanks to benefit dinners and other fund-raisers, he has been able to employ a full-time nurse. Perhaps more important, funds raised by the Brian Sternberg Foundation helped him subsidize an operation that has improved his health immeasurably: Two years ago Sternberg traveled to Bad Pyrmont, Germany, near Hanover, to undergo an omentum transposition, a controversial surgery pioneered by an American named Dr. Harry Goldsmith. The procedure, which Goldsmith performed, involved excising scar tissue from Sternberg's injured area, then removing a large portion of the omentum from its attachment at the lower edge of the stomach, lengthening it and placing it on the injured part of the spinal cord. According to Goldsmith, this increases blood flow and neurochemical delivery from the omentum to the spinal cord.