Donald George Bragg of Villanova sprints down the runway at nine yards a second. His pole slams into the vaulting box. As Bragg absorbs the shock, his muscles bulge like a shotputter's. He swings smoothly up to a near handstand, flies away over the 15-foot bar and tumbles triumphantly back into the pit (see page 24).
For 60 years the U.S.'s surest bet for an Olympic gold medal in track and field has ridden on the seemingly free and easy style of pole vaulters like Don Bragg. There are today several Europeans within wriggling distance of the Olympic record of 14 feet 11 inches set by Bob Richards in 1952, but a number of Americans, including Richards, are solidly beating it. In the 14 years since the world record holder, Cornelius Warmerdam of California, hung a 15-foot 7¾-inch ceiling over his competitors' heads, six more Americans have cleared 15 feet, and five of these are still competing. The Midwesterners, Richards and Don Laz, have been up there for more than six years. In the past year they have been joined by Bragg, Jerry Welbourn of Ohio and young Bob Gutowski of California.
Even for a vaulter as consistent as Bob Richards, winner of 100 major titles, a 15-foot vault never comes as easy as it may seem to a spectator. No expert can say with any certainty whether the next Olympic champion will be the veteran Richards or a promising comer like Bragg or some 14-footer come suddenly from nowhere. Moreover, though vaulting has evolved in the past 30 years into an exact science of conditioning and technique and no one feels Warmerdam's record will last forever, no expert can surely say what sort of athletic background is likely to produce the next record breaker.
Warmerdam began vaulting in his father's orchard as a grade-schooler with no finesse. During Warmerdam's peak years the current master of vaulting, Bob Richards, was an indifferent high school nine-footer preoccupied, he now relates, with becoming either a boxer or a juvenile delinquent. Richards bypassed both these early penchants and dedicated himself to the ministry, gymnastics, football and the pole vault. While Richards was pushing up through the vaulting ranks 10 years ago, in the woods where the Delaware River rolls past Penns Grove, N.J., Donald Bragg, age 10, was swooping 60 feet through the air from tall oak to tall oak, emitting the soprano bellows of a young ape. Young Bragg aspired to be a Tarzan, and in the process ha developed a tremendous body frame, the pectoral muscles and arms of a stevedore and a hand grip that would make an oyster wince.
May 13, 1956
Fearing other kids with less jungle skill might get hurt following Bragg through the bowers, the Penns Grove police twice tore up the elaborate arrangement of ropes Bragg rigged in the woods and bade Bragg cease and desist. The police—indeed almost all Penns Grove—now view Don Bragg's current Tarzanville (see above) as a point of curious pride. In summer when Bragg's competitive vaulting is through for the year and the mosquitoes are not too fierce from the bogs, the traffic through the trees becomes quite heavy. There may be a dozen Penns Grovians out in Tarzanville, some watching and picnicking and the rest playing tag, swinging 20 feet up in the trees over a 600-foot course. It is something of an honor for the 100-pound sprouts to ride from perch to perch on Bragg's back.
Since Bragg's best vault (15 feet 5¼ inches) as a collegian at the relatively tender vaulting age of 20 is better than either Warmerdam or Richards did in college, and since two more Penns Grove rope swingers, his brother George and Ron Brady, are keeping pace with Bragg's performance as a high school vaulter, it would seem that one short cut to vaulting success lies through the trees. There are a number of sports actually—sprinting, rope climbing, gymnastics and hurdling—that develop somewhat the musculature, speed and snap action for vaulting. But the athlete remains basic raw material until he faces up to the vault itself. As a vaulter on the runway gets two or three strides from the vaulting box he begins a complex of actions designed to translate his runway momentum into vertical flight. In a precious second and a half the vaulter must slide the pole into the box, shift his bottom hand toward his top grip, take off, swing, pull up, turn over and push up, arc over and push away. Coming back down presents no great problem unless the pit tender happens to have left his rake buried in the sawdust.
BIG, VERSATILE MEN
Because of variations in physique and efficiency at various stages of the vault, no man can slavishly imitate another vaulter. But, generally speaking, the fundamentals remain the same. In the early '20s it was the vogue to execute a neat, sharp jackknife in clearing the bar. This was the last major error to be cleared out of the fundamentals, and it was a Norwegian, Charles Hoff, who led the way. Hoff was the first 14-foot vaulter; instead of jacking, Hoff simply flew away at the top of his vault. His presence on the vaulting scene also pointed up a few more facts generally accepted today. At 6 feet 2 inches and 165 pounds, Hoff was a good bit larger than the average vaulter of his day. He could sprint, broad-jump and high-jump well, reached the semifinals of the 400 meters in the 1924 Games and unofficially broke the decathlon record.
While there is a good chance a versatile, medium-sized vaulter like Richards (who won the national decathlon title three times) might break Warmerdam's record, since the days of Hoff it has become increasingly obvious that big men will eventually rule the event—that is, big, versatile men who can develop the speed, power and near-perfect form of Bob Richards.
In high school Don Bragg cleared 13½ feet, which was exceptional but no record (high schoolers have been clearing 13 feet for 30 years). At 6 feet 3 inches and 190 pounds, Bragg is the biggest yet to hit the top ranks, and it was largely his size and athletic versatility that prompted 19 colleges to look him up three years ago. Bragg picked Villanova University, which, though it has only 3,100 students, is a burgeoning track power and likely to be represented by three, and possibly five, men in the next Olympics. The eminence of Villanova can be put squarely on the head of Coach Jumbo Jim Elliott, a multi-careered man known well around Philadelphia as a tenacious scratch golfer and a successful contracting equipment salesman. Track coaches rate Elliott as a man with a good eye for spotting raw potential and for coaching and persuading good talent to do the near impossible. "Given the time," one appraiser has said, "Elliott could teach a seal to fly, or at least talk it into trying."
"I had almost no form," Don Bragg states, recalling his first year at Villanova. "I was still chicken-stepping down the runway. When Elliott saw me, we started almost all over again."
As a promising big man, Bragg has run into an unprecedented problem. Until he came along, the metal poles now used were considered durable. Swinging his 190 pounds up to 15 feet, in the past year Bragg has bent and discarded 11 poles. He has tried American steel and Swedish steel and aluminum. Everything bends. Villanova hopes that a new, reinforced-aluminum pole with a 90,000-pound stress per square inch will hold their big man through this season and the Olympics next November. The target for Bragg and every good vaulter right now is not Melbourne but the U.S. trials this June. It seems hard to believe, but by the pure mathematics of it at least two 15-foot vaulters won't make the team.
Bragg takes off, muscles bulging as they absorb the shock. On the following pages SI cameras show Bob Richards in action and Bragg as he plummets into the pit.