In the loosely knit conglomeration of events that is track and field, the pole vault has always stood out for the personalities of the men—and now the women—it has attracted. They have been eccentrics, daredevils, free spirits and, in some cases, downright wackos such as Dave Volz, who used to dive 55 feet off the catwalks in the Indiana field house to a tiny landing pit below. It takes some rare quality to hang upside down from a wildly bending pole and let it fling you 19 feet in the air. After all, poles sometimes shatter, vaulters sometimes miss the pit On the family tree of athletes, vaulters swing from their own cracked branch.
Jeff Hartwig is a handsome, clean-cut man who disavows any link to this nutty species. But as he speaks, the stories begin to slip out: How at Northern Iowa's Uni-Dome, where Hartwig went for a meet during his college days, there's a 35-foot-high wall next to the vaulting pit, and, well, what would you do? "We had five of us Arkansas State vaulters up there all aiming to land in the pit at the same time," he recalls. Then there's the not-so-small matter of Hartwig's snakes, 42 of them in all, boas and pythons, some as long as 14 feet, which he raises for fun and profit in his house in Jonesboro, Ark. One, a Burmese python named Niki, used to accompany Hartwig to practice and loll in the steeplechase water-jump pit. Another, a 10�-foot python named John, slept on Hartwig's water bed, curling up under his pillow. "I'd sleep right on him," says Hartwig. "He loved that warm mattress. It's amazing how long snakes will sleep somewhere if it's warm." Hey, Jeff, the snake's craving for warmth is not the most amazing thing about that story.
What has been amazing of late has been Hartwig's excellence in the vault. Last year he cleared 19 feet 22 times, including 13 meets in a row. Both of those figures broke records held by history's greatest vaulter, Sergei Bubka, who set the world record of 20'2" in 1993. (Last year Bubka, 35 and hampered by injuries, fell out of the world rankings for the first time since '83.) Hartwig also had the highest vault in the world last year (a U.S. outdoor record of 19'8�), a distinction no American had attained since '78. "He just keeps getting better," marvels Hartwig's coach, Earl Bell, who was himself an Olympic vaulter. "If you'd asked me four years ago if I thought he could ever jump as high as Bubka, I'd have said no. Now I believe he can."
Last Saturday afternoon, at the USA Indoor Track & Field Championships at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Hartwig cleared 19 feet for the sixth time in six meets this winter, ultimately sailing over an American indoor record of 19'5" to beat a superb field. For only the second time, four Americans topped 19 feet in the same meet, led by Hartwig and Nick Hysong, who finished second with a 19'2�". "With Nick and Lawrence [ Johnson, who placed third] jumping so well, I knew it was possible to jump 19 feet and not make the team," said Hartwig, referring to the fact that only the top two finishers in each event in Atlanta qualified for the U.S. squad headed to next week's world championships in Maebashi, Japan. "I now feel I'd have to screw up not to jump 19 feet, but I try to have respect for how high that is."
Hartwig had plenty of time to learn respect. In high school he didn't clear 15 feet, and in college he didn't reach 18. At 31, he's a classic late bloomer, hanging in there through years longer and leaner than any pole. In 1991 Hartwig earned just $12,000—the salary Bell paid him to help out at the vaulting school Bell runs in Jonesboro. Having had to beg his way into meets just a few years ago, Hartwig now savors his new clout and the six-figure income it brought him last year. He and his wife, Karol, are building a new house with all the amenities, even a 600-square-foot snake room with running water in the cages.
With his chiseled good looks, athleticism and unforgettable hobby, Hartwig is just the sort of athlete track and field needs as it tries to win new fans. The crowd in Atlanta, announced at 9,810, was larger than in recent years, but with the exception of the homestretch grandstands, the cavernous Georgia Dome felt empty. The meet, however, was full. In addition to the vault heroics, the fans were treated to an American record of 20.32 in the men's 200 meters by Rohsaan Griffin and to a trio of stunning upsets. In the men's 60, Maurice Greene, the world's top-ranked sprinter, came within .01 of his world record in winning his semifinal in 6.40 but got a poor start in the final and finished second to Tim Harden, 6.44 to 6.49. John Godina, No. 1 in the world in the shot put, and Charles Austin, the 1996 Olympic champion in the high jump, both finished third. In the shot Andy Bloom threw 68'3�" to win, while Henry Patterson took the high jump with a leap of 7'6�".
Atlanta was the culmination of the new four-meet Golden Spike Tour. Two of the meets were carried live on network television and two were broadcast on tape delay. That's progress in regaining a place for the sport in the public eye, and USA Track & Field CEO Craig Masback also points to the fact that he has boosted the organization's sponsorship revenue from $1.3 million in 1997, the year he took over, to $7 million in '99. Masback wants to make some fundamental changes, too. For years now, first as a 3:52 miler in the late '70s and early '80s and then as a television track commentator, he has been filing away ideas on how to streamline meets. "We need to organize our presentation, choreograph it," he says. "In the old days it was considered good to be a three-ring circus. I never understood that. When I went to the circus, the bears didn't compete with the elephants."
Some of Masback's changes have been obvious (sending out press releases and results by E-mail), some less so (clearing the infield of the detritus that track meets seem to accumulate). At the D.C. Invitational in Fairfax, Va., on Feb. 19, a section of stands was reserved for children, who had their own cheerleader. Borrowing an idea from European meets, the women high jumpers were asked to choose music to introduce their jumps. Another innovation was a two-woman match race final in the dash. Still, in a sport laden with tradition, not everyone is happy with innovation. "We don't have to become roller derby," complained one meet promoter.
"Most of [Masback's] detractors are people who've staked out their teeny chunk of territory and want to defend it," says Garry Hill, editor of Track & Field News. "I don't agree with everything Craig has done, but I agree with his goal: Something needs to be done. We've lost a generation of fans. Where is the next generation going to come from?"
That's a good question, and one that 800-meter specialist Meredith Rainey Valmon seems to be addressing on a couple of fronts. Nineteen months ago she gave birth to a son, Travis. She believes the experience has made her a better runner. "It taught me the difference between what I want to do and what I need to do," says Valmon, "and that made me get more serious about my training."