SI Vault
John Underwood
February 20, 1967
Bob Seagren belongs to the Pepsi generation. He is an expert with hair sprays and long-distance phone calls, but what he does best is ride a cumbersome pole almost out of sight
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February 20, 1967

He Sizzles At The End Of A Swizzle Stick

Bob Seagren belongs to the Pepsi generation. He is an expert with hair sprays and long-distance phone calls, but what he does best is ride a cumbersome pole almost out of sight

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A wonderful bird is the pole vaulter. He is supreme among track and field athletes because in his one event he is the synthesis of them all, combining—in relatively moderate supply, of course—the speed of a sprinter with the strength of a javelin thrower and the spring and elasticity of a high jumper. He must also have some of the endurance of a distance runner, because often he will still be working when everybody else has gone to bed. His 16-foot vaulting pole makes it necessary that he be cunning, too, in order to get it safely from one competition to another, to keep it out of the ears of pedestrians at the crowded intersections around arenas like Madison Square Garden and to get it in and out of taxicabs. Don Bragg was almost electrocuted once when his pole hit a power line as he tried to board a train at Philadelphia's 30th Street station. A problem more prevalent today is knowing which airlines will let him take the pole with him, because a vaulter must always take it with him. In the end it helps that he learn to appreciate the glamour of his event, because when he is as good as Bob Seagren (see cover) girls wait for him in hotel lobbies and call him long distance in the middle of the night.

One thing a pole vaulter does not have any more is longevity. As a modern hero his fame is bright but short. It used to be different, back when Bob Richards was vaulting. Bob won two Olympic gold medals four years apart and track people accepted the possibility that they would have to put up with him forever. There was a degree of permanence to every new record. It took 13 years for the world record to rise from 14 to 15 feet. When Don Bragg "came down from outer space" (as headline writers were inspired to say in 1960), down from 15'9�", it was a very big event and followers of the pole vault settled back for a long siege of Braggadocio. Don was young, curly-haired and bulging with muscles and ideas. He said his plans were to win the Olympic gold medal, which he did in September of that year, and to play Tarzan in the movies. "If I can learn to vault," he reasoned, "I can learn to act." What he learned instead was how ruthless the advance of technology could be.

In May of 1961 an Oklahoma State sophomore named George Davies flexed his fiber-glass pole, gathered himself into a knot at the end of it and, as much to his own surprise as anybody's, soared 15'10�" outdoors. Don Bragg was at least resentful. "That's catapulting, not vaulting," he said, with some justification. He moved that the glass pole be outlawed, or made a separate event.

But soon every vaulter worth a flip had acquired one and the skies were filled with flying bodies. George Davies was soon forgotten. In rapid succession a German immigrant named John Hans Feigenbaum (his adopted name was John Uelses), Dave Tork, a 27-year-old marine, Pentti Nikula, a Finn, C. K. Yang, a Chinese from UCLA, and Brian Sternberg of Seattle, perhaps the best of them all, had set records. "Acrobats," sniffed Don Bragg as his chances to play Tarzan went flying out the window. He said an event that used to be 70% man and 30% pole was now 70% pole. Patience, he said, had taken the place of strength, that it was just a matter of waiting for that sublime snap that would send the vaulter to heaven's door.

What Bragg was resisting, naturally, was progress, an implacable enemy. The glass pole did indeed take some of the muscle out of the event, but it placed a more proportionate premium on speed and agility. A wise old head, Yale Coach Bob Giegengack, said during the heat of the controversy, "It always took an exceptional athlete to be a pole vaulter. Now it takes an even better one."

In any case, there soon was nothing exclusive about being a member of the "exclusive 16-foot club" of pole vaulting because everybody but Orson Welles was vaulting 16 feet. Then, one warm day in Coral Gables, Fla., a former sousaphone player named John Pennel, who had started vaulting with a used television antenna and admitted to an early fear of Big Bend, that marvelous fiber-glass pole, cleared 17 feet. Bragg quit fighting.

That was in August of 1963. Now there are six pole vaulters who have done 17 feet or better: Pennel, Seagren, Paul Wilson, Sam Kirk and Fred Hansen of the United States and Wolfgang Norwig of East Germany. Hansen, who won the 1964 Olympic gold medal in Tokyo, retired a contented man at age 24. Pennel is 26, and he has been out for months with wrist and shoulder injuries and will not compete again until spring, but he has by no means retired. Any day now one of the remaining four will do 18 feet or more, as sure as Bob Richards eats breakfast food. If you concede that Pennel, older and hurting, has been eclipsed, then the man for this job is Robert Lloyd Seagren, who used to be Pennel's roommate until he found out what a lousy housekeeper Pennel was.

Seagren, the man for this season, is 20, a handsome dog with a made-in- Los Angeles personality and a little-boy smile that knocks girls out. He is obviously no intellectual, because he thinks we ought to be in Vietnam and ought not to take seriously those "nuts" at Berkeley. Vaulting has been taking up most of his time since he was 11, and he is in a hurry. He thinks he can do 18 feet indoors before the spring thaw. He already held the indoor record before this season but improved it to 17'2" at Albuquerque three weeks ago and would have added an inch to that this weekend in Los Angeles had his pole not gone underneath the crossbar after he had cleared the height. For a couple of months last year he had the outdoor record, too, but Pennel got that back in July with a vault of 17'6�".

Seagren is now at the University of Southern California, where one of his fellow sophomores is Paul Wilson. In the absence of Pennel, Wilson is Seagren's principal opposition. The USC track coach enjoying this extravagance of talent is Vern Wolfe, himself an ex-pole vaulter (bamboo) who knows the best way to coach good pole vaulters is as little as possible. His two stars are not alike: Wilson is a purist, a student of the vault who can tell you the physical properties of the pole, its transverse deflection ratio, its cantilever test score and its resale value at the Army-Navy surplus store. Seagren might casually drop into a postmeet interview the notion that there are "32 phases" to correct execution of the vault, but he picked that up from someone else and would not want to be held to an inventory. The sum of the parts is what interests Seagren. He is what in sports is romantically called "a natural."

The other day he was in Coach Wolfe's office at USC, watching movies of his triumph at Albuquerque. Not all of the fun he had had there was on film. Vaulter-about-town, he had enjoyed himself and had got a kick out of the Albuquerque paper that said he was up until 4 a.m. after the meet because he was too excited over his new record to sleep. It was not his record that kept him up. But now, on the coach's wall, the flickering image of Bob Seagren the vaulter did not please him. Bob was turning off the pole too soon, Vern Wolfe said, sliding to the right before he got maximum height. "Oh, bad vault, bad vault," Bob said. "I can't believe that. That's not even close to being perfect." Wolfe smiled and said tenderly, "Bobby, you don't make perfect vaults, except once every three or four weeks."

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