For a chilling moment at last Friday night's Toronto Star Maple Leaf Games, both Billy Olson and the pole vault crossbar were descending from 19 feet, destined for either the edge of the vaulting pad—or the bare, spike-chewed plywood of the sprint runway just beyond it. No one was sure where Olson would land, though he himself was thinking wood. "I was scared to death," Olson said later. "I figured, two broken legs."
Olson, who was making his first attempt at a world indoor record of 19'�", had propelled himself to a tremendous height—five or six inches above what he needed to become history's first 19-foot indoor vaulter—but had also veered dangerously to the right. In his eagerness to clear 19, he had used his stiffest pole and charged down the runway so furiously that fellow vaulter Earl Bell later described the effort as "suicidal." As 11,500 fans in Maple Leaf Gardens sat transfixed, Olson acted out of self-preservation. He aborted his jump, coming down squarely on the crossbar and using body English to keep as much of himself over the landing pad as possible. He caught the last two feet of cushion. After a moment, Olson stood up, shaken.
"I could have killed myself," he told Bell and Pacific Coast Club Coach Tom Jennings, who were sitting near the vault runway. "It's a long way down from up there." Indeed, only Thierry Vigneron of France and Vladimir Polyakov of the Soviet Union had ever cleared 19 feet or higher officially, both having done so outdoors in June of 1981. Olson's best had been his indoor world record of 18'10�", set two weeks earlier in Los Angeles.
"Next time try staying on the pad," said Jennings.
"Aim for the middle," advised Bell.
"It's not funny," said Olson, whose career was nearly ended in 1980 when he missed the pad and shattered his left wrist. "But what do you think?" he asked. "Should I switch back to the 15.2 [a more flexible pole] this time?"
"I think you should establish sanity and mental health this time," answered Bell.
Olson, 24, from Abilene, Texas, had calmly predicted that he would crack 19 feet in Toronto, where last winter he'd set the first of his six indoor world records. "The Canadian fans sound just like Texans," he said. "This must be what they call North Texas, the Canadian Panhandle." Olson loves almost everything about Canada, right down to the domestic brew. "Molson," he says. "That's a mighty great beer because it has my name in it." But most important to Olson in targeting Toronto for his special try at 19 feet was the deceivingly quick runway in Maple Leaf Gardens. To the casual eye it's nothing more than plywood covered by a narrow course of brown rubber; to Olson it's the best indoor runup anywhere. He had so much confidence in it that on Friday he didn't enter the competition until 18'4�", and after clearing that height on his second attempt to win the meet, he immediately decided to go for 19'�". "You dummy," Jennings shouted, preferring that Olson attempt an intermediate height first. But Olson didn't want to waste his energy. "You want to come out here and try it?" he asked.
It was exactly 10:16 p.m. when Olson went to the head of the runway, lifted his pole—the more flexible model he'd used on his first two jumps—and began his 145-foot run toward the standards for a second crack at the record. Olson has been clocked by radar gun at 8.8 meters per second during his approach, a record among vaulters, but according to Bell, "This was the best run I've ever seen. By him or anyone. It was lo-co-motion."
It was also breathtaking. Olson, who has recently strengthened his upper body by lifting dumbbells, planted cleanly, drove powerfully into the pole, rose and arced smoothly over the bar, barely touching it on top with his chest. As Olson hit the pit, the bar quavered gently. It didn't fall.