The first time John Uelses tried to vault over 16 feet, he failed in the delicate coordination of speed, balance, strength and patience that is required to manage the flexible fiber-glass vaulting pole he uses. Mostly he failed in patience.
He scrambled out of the pit at Madison Square Garden, where he was competing in the Millrose Games, and walked over to Aubrey Dooley, who is his superior officer at Quantico, Va. Marine Lieutenant Dooley gave Marine Corporal Uelses (pronounced Yool-sez) a few words of advice. John picked up the dark-brown glass pole and returned to the runway for his second try at 16 feet and a quarter of an inch.
"I told him to wait longer for the kick from the pole," Dooley said. "On fiber glass you have to wait and wait and wait and then you have to wait a little longer. He rushed that last vault and threw his feet into the crossbar."
Uelses stood quietly about two-thirds of the way down the 140-foot board runway. As he composed himself, Dooley said, in a very quiet voice, "He's going to make 16 feet tonight. You watch." Uelses did not make it on his second try, however. Again he failed to wait for the glass pole to uncoil and give him the extra flip of momentum he needed to get over.
Again he came over to Dooley and talked briefly and seriously for a moment. "I told him to wait, keep his shoulders parallel to the ground and pray," Dooley said. "He needs all the help he can get on this one."
This time Uelses waited. The brown vaulting pole bent in a deep, taut arc, and Uelses hung on it upside down for what seemed a long time until the pole snapped straight. Uelses pulled himself up into a handstand at the top of it, legs aimed at the smoky ceiling of the Garden. Then, in a quick rush, he was clear over the crossbar, with inches to spare, and dropping down.
In the sudden rush of well-wishers and photographers toward the pit someone knocked the crossbar off the standards. This set off a 24-hour flurry of speculation as to whether or not Uelses would be credited with his world indoor record, because the bar could not be measured again after his vault. Uelses himself seemed shocked when he heard this.
"What should I do, coach?" he asked Jumbo Jim Elliott, the Villanova coach who had Uelses under his care on the American track team that competed in Europe last summer.
"Keep your mouth shut," Jumbo said. "Just tell them you'll do it again."
Uelses followed Elliott's advice. "If this one doesn't count, I'll do it again," he said. Then, the next night in Boston, he did. This time he cleared 16 feet � of an inch, and no one knocked the crossbar down.