JOHN PENNEL: A SORE-BACKED WINE SALESMAN
The most exciting human projectile since Hugo Zacchini, who earned his living by having himself fired from a cannon, is an insouciant young man named John Pennel. Pennel is fired from the end of a willowy 16-foot fiber-glass pole and performs, unlike the high-calibered Zacchini, strictly for fun, at least during the indoor track season. He has, in recent weeks, broken the world indoor vault record (16 feet 9� inches in Los Angeles two weeks ago) and the Millrose Games and Madison Square Garden record in New York. Saturday night in Boston he came within a misplaced thigh of being the first man to reach 17 feet indoors. But of all his recent leaps, the 16-foot 5-inch effort in New York last week (right) probably was the most perfect. The many and intricate elements of the pole vault came together where Pennel needed them most—directly over the bar. Viewing sequence pictures later, Pennel marveled at what had happened and estimated he could have cleared another foot had the bar been set at that height.
Pennel was not made particularly angry by his failure to go higher in New York. "The indoor season is fun," he said. "I have a good time, but it isn't serious. I don't want to peak too early. I save that for outdoors."
Pennel at 25 is a compact 5 feet 11, weighs 170 pounds, most of them packed into superbly developed arm, chest and shoulder muscles. He was the first man ever to vault 17 feet outdoors, and he may be the first to make 18. "I have not set a ceiling for myself," he says. "But I'm sure 18 feet 3 is possible, maybe 18 feet 6."
Pennel started vaulting on a used TV antenna when he was a youngster in Miami, where his father owns a welding-equipment company. A minor sensation at Coral Gables High, where he also played sousaphone in the band and piano to please his mother, he entered Northeast Louisiana State College and swapped his steel pole for an aluminum one. He did 15 feet� on aluminum but, in the meantime, John Uelses reached 16 feet on fiber glass, and Pennel switched again. The best he could manage during that first season on glass was 14 feet 8 and it took him two years to climb to 15 feet 4.
"I couldn't get used to the bend," he says. "I was scared of it."
By 1963 he had conquered his fear, learned the difficult acrobatic technique required on glass and, in an amazing outdoor season, bettered the world record six times and tied it once. After pushing the ceiling to 16 feet 10 in London, he predicted that he would go over 17. He made good on the promise by clearing 17 feet� inches in Miami in August.
Pennel might have cleared 18 feet by now except for a long series of crippling injuries, among them a broken heel in 1964. For the last 10 years he has been troubled with a sore back, which has finally been diagnosed as a slipped disc. It flared up in Tokyo just before the Olympic Games. "I had done 17 feet easily in practice," Pennel says. "Then I strained the disc badly and, instead of quitting, I went on and tried three more vaults. That was a mistake."
It was, indeed. Pennel spent most of his time in Tokyo in bed, where a variety of trainers and doctors took turns misdiagnosing his injury. One East German trainer said that he had a pulled muscle and gave him a deep massage with a stick. This left him with a badly bruised back as well as a slipped disc.
"Everybody thought I was through," Pennel says. "For a long time I thought so, too. I had a job as a sports announcer on Channel 4 in Miami, and I wasn't training. But subconsciously I must have known that I would be back. When CBS offered me the announcing job, I didn't take it until I had checked the AAU about my eligibility."