As the brusque winds of spring chased winter into the north, America's track and field athletes moved happily into the open air. At the Texas Relays in Austin, four of Texas' hardy sprinting perennials whisked to a new world record in the 880-yard relay (see page 116). Joe Rose of Arizona State trundled quickly down a short runway, lifted briefly and won the pole vault with a jump of 14 feet 3¾ inches, a meet record. In California, in the same event, Occidental's Bob Gutowski vaulted 15 feet 4 inches and set a new NCAA record. Everywhere, as spring moved swiftly across the face of the land, the outdoor track meets followed as swiftly in its path.
But while the college meets monopolized newsprint, connoisseurs last week spared attention for a high school meet—yes, high school—between North Phoenix and Camel-back High in Phoenix, Ariz. For it was here that one of the most interesting stories in the long continued story of the athlete's struggle against the limitations of time, distance and height was beginning to be told.
The Phoenix meet drew a typical high school crowd—some 200 students half lost in a combination football and track arena. The day was warm and bedeviled by a frisky wind which switched capriciously around the points of the compass and played hob with performances. Since the performances, as is usual in high school meets, were mostly routine, the wind really made small difference except to one lean, fine-drawn youngster with the clear look of the great athlete in beautifully muscled arms and shoulders and trim, long legs.
Jim Brewer is a remarkably unremarkable young man. He wears his blond hair in a flat-top crew cut, likes sports, ice cream sodas, jazz (not rock 'n' roll), movies and a pretty, blonde girl named Marabah Wilson who also attends North Phoenix High School. He has not considered seriously what he would like to do for a living, although he leans a bit toward engineering. He wears the uniform of his kind in Phoenix, when he is not on the practice field—faded, beltless blue jeans which hang precariously on lean hips, and a white T shirt. He is a quiet, popular youngster, indistinguishable from any number of quiet youngsters in a thousand high schools in America, except for one thing.
April 15, 1957
Jim Brewer, equipped with the quick, sure coordination of a hunting cat and a spare, strong body, has, too, the one thing which separates the great athletes from the good ones—an obsession. For Brewer, the obsession is pole vaulting. He started in the sixth grade, built himself a vaulting pit in his backyard in the seventh, climbed awkwardly over 12 feet, clad in Levis, in the eighth. Since then, dressed more conventionally in a track suit, he has vaulted higher than anyone his age has ever done in the history of track and field.
At an age when Cornelius Warmerdam, holder of the world record at 15 feet 8½ inches, had cleared only 12-3, Brewer has vaulted an incredible 14 feet 9‚Öú inches. Bob Richards, who has vaulted above 15 feet more often than any man who ever lived, reached only 12 feet in high school and Don Bragg, a vaulter who bids seriously for 16 feet, went 13-6 in high school. Gutowski, who set the NCAA record in California, made 12-3½ at La Jolla High.
So it is not surprising that track connoisseurs everywhere watch with interest when young Brewer competes. And on this warm, windy afternoon, before 200 mildly interested high school students, Brewer vaulted as well as only he has ever vaulted so young.
He had strained a belly muscle three days before the meet taking some of the endless exercises he takes to strengthen himself for his obsession. The wind, too, was a hazard to him and he changed runways to have it at his back. He cleared 13 feet 6 inches on the south runway, doing it easily; the wind skittered into the north and he moved to the north runway and worked his way up to 14 feet one inch. He cleared that and moved up to 14-6 and, with the few kids on hand drifting away as the meet ended, he tried three times and missed each time. He had won the event long since and his winning height would be 14-1, but he moved slowly back to the end of the runway again.
Vernon Wolfe, his coach, trickled sawdust through his fingers to test the wind. When it fell straight down, he motioned to Brewer and the youngster started down the runway again. He starts slowly but he runs smoothly, and he swept gracefully off the ground, the long, lean body trailing down from his hand grip briefly, then swinging up and twisting and going up again until he hung still and high against the late evening sky for a moment, the pole beginning to drop back and away, his hands oddly graceful in the final push-off, then his body beginning to drop, the crossbar still there and the jump made.
"Did you see him push off the pole with his lower hand?" Wolfe asked. "No coach would believe a man could go that high and give up the six or eight inches a good thrust from the top [right] hand gives."
Wolfe is sure Brewer can go 16 feet. "He could hit 15-6 almost any day—any time he holds the pole at 12-3 and gets his thrust right."
Brewer is not so sure. He doubts his speed. "It will take a 9.6 sprinter," he says, thinking of his own 11 flat. Wolfe points out Brewer starts slow but finishes a hundred at the clip of a 10.3 sprinter. Warmerdam, who obviously hopes Brewer will come to him at Fresno State next year, is more optimistic than Wolfe. "Brewer has no ceiling as far as I'm concerned," he says.