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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By his own appraisal, Seagren often "slops up into the air" and then tries to muscle through to make up for his loss of form. He estimates that he has spoiled numerous record jumps doing that when, as happened last week, the pole followed him into the pit. There are times when he fouls out at heights he should be able to clear in an overcoat. At Fresno the day he did 17'5�" he almost went out at 15'6". On his third try at that height, he blocked—i.e., ran down the runway, planted the pole in the box and stopped without jumping—eight straight times. "The fans were yelling, 'Get that guy out of there,' " Seagren says, "and an official told me he'd have to disqualify me if I didn't jump, so I finally did and made it."

Seagren complains that he does not have the coordinated hand action of Hansen or Pennel, that he frequently pushes off with one hand instead of two and other times he just looks plain tired going over the bar. But these are things only he might see in himself, and the point is he does get over the bar, somehow, and usually at that moment when all would be lost if he did not. In New York at the Millrose Games he injured his back and still he set a meet record of 16'7". He could have quit then, but the bar was raised to 17'2", and he prepared to go on. Vern Wolfe walked over to him. "Don't you think you ought to quit, Bobby?" "Hell no, coach. You know I can't quit now."

As a breed pole vaulters just naturally seem to be a daring bunch, else they would not be flying around up there on a swizzle stick that weighs only four pounds and is not built to last. (Seagren has broken 15 poles, but fortunately has never been broken himself.) They appear to thrive not so much on the competition but on the experience. Gifted with instant enthusiasm, they always seem to want to try something, anything. The desire for experience is the sort that makes Bob Seagren declare he wants to be a pilot when, for the first time, he is allowed into the cockpit of a plane and sees all those flashing lights and levers, and makes him say to a man back from Africa that he would give his right arm to hunt something there.

In Pomona, 25 miles due east of Los Angeles, where he grew up, Seagren rode his motorbike two years ago at breakneck speeds around the hills below Mt. Baldy. Often he had climbed the mountain and crawled through the narrow underground passages of Cucamonga Canyon, daring them to swallow him up. He put a 1958 Cadillac engine into a 1940 Ford sedan to see what it could do. He got expelled from school for a week for painting " Pomona High" in big red letters on the gymnasium wall of a rival school. The artistry wasn't as exciting as the execution—he had to shinny up 30 feet of drainpipe to get to the chosen spot.

His brother Art, four years his senior, aroused Bob's appetite for pole vaulting. Art was full of great ideas. He took the bamboo poles out of the rolled-up rugs at a nearby carpet store and the two of them went vaulting from one garage roof to another, terrorizing the old ladies of the neighborhood. A couple of times Bob tried too hard to keep up with his big brother and plunged into clotheslines, twanging his neck. Art himself went nose first into the mud of a stream bed and almost suffocated. They never could get enough of that wonderful peril. Today when the brothers are home in Pomona on weekends they get their skateboards and race six miles down the concrete wash from Mt. Baldy Dam at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour.

"It's hairy," says Bob.

Arthur Seagren Sr. wanted his boys to be professional baseball players. He had been a good athlete himself back in Illinois, had moved to California to drive a Pepsi-Cola truck and, 28 years later, is now manager of one of the larger Pepsi-Cola plants in southern California, dispensing 15,000 cases a day. But, as Bob remembers, "Dad had a glove on me all the time. I got sick of baseball. If you want to know the truth, I didn't like sitting on the bench."

So Bob followed Art's lead. Art set pole-vault records in junior high, senior high and at Mt. San Antonio Junior College, and Bob came along behind him four years later and meticulously wiped them out. Art had built himself up for handling the aluminum pole, was bigger and stronger than Bob but less supple. Bob found he could make far better use of the fiber-glass pole than Art ever did. The last piece of advice Art was able to give his little brother was that a few squirts of hair spray were great for keeping the hair in place going over the bar.

Bob was always a dead-serious trainer. He developed a hernia throwing Pepsi cases around at his dad's place—"Art hated all that sweat. I didn't mind it." He hoisted dumbbells and ran great distances and did chin-ups. He still leans to middle-distance running and gymnastics (horizontal bar, rope climb, still rings) as principal parts of his training and never attempts to vault more than 16 feet except in competition. A couple of years ago at Mt. SAC he got talked into the decathlon. Some of the events he had never tried before, others he had only sampled. "The officials laughed like mad when I threw the discus," he says in recollection. "And my first two attempts with the javelin were line drives that didn't even stick in the ground. I landed head first in the sand on my first broad jump. I couldn't keep my butt from hitting the hurdles. I was unbelievable." He was. In a field of 16 that included two Olympians, Seagren finished fifth.

Though his attitude toward scholarship was not unique ("I hated school"), Seagren's grades in high school reflected his loathing. He was advised by USC to take a stab at junior college first. His grades at Mt. SAC, which read like a cold wave, were hardly encouraging. Seagren transferred to Glendale—another junior college in California—and after some protracted sweating came up with enough credits to get into USC last fall. He still does not pretend to be a dedicated scholar. His vaulting schedule, practically year round, is too heavy and too time-consuming to permit that. So he picks his courses gingerly and jokes about it.

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