The young man straining down at you from this week's cover is the best pole vaulter in the world—and in history. He has gone higher than any other and is, at the moment, characteristically gazing down from a crossbar vantage point well over 15 feet in the air.
But Robert Allen Gutowski is almost as surprised as the rest of the track world to find himself at this dizzying eminence. He didn't even really make last year's Olympic team and went to Melbourne as a promoted alternate, yet he came home with the silver medal.
Bob did not even enter Los Angeles' little (enrollment 1,300) Occidental College as a track star. As a high schooler, he had barely scraped over 12 feet 3½ inches, which did not entitle him to much notice in track-happy southern California, and he had to get into Occidental on a basketball scholarship. But the seasoned eyes who watched Gutowski in the pole vault pit suddenly realized that his swing up to the bar was one of the most fluid ever seen. It was only an easily corrected tendency to belly-out and collapse too soon at the bar that was costing him Olympian heights.
One other thing did not escape the then-coach Payton Jordan. "Gutowski," he observed to the press in some wonderment, "is keen, ambitious, relentless, determined and especially fearless." With this as a start, learning to keep the legs skyward a fraction of a second longer at the push-off was child's play. On February 25, 1956, the fearless Gutowski (known as "Guts" to his competitors) served notice on Richards, Bragg and Co. by vaulting 15 feet¼ inch and abruptly joining the select cadre of athletes who had done so.
At the Olympic trials, a momentary lapse into the old fault caused him to rap out at 14 feet 8 inches—good enough only for fourth place. But Gutowski shrugged it off and trudged over to Europe on a consolation tour. There he startled the Russians and his own countrymen by drubbing the Iron Curtain athletes and equalling the Olympic record of 14 feet 11½ inches in a meet in Rumania.
At Melbourne, Gutowski was only 1¼ inches behind Bob Richards, and it was clear the reverend could begin looking over both shoulders at once at the young chemistry student with the perfect, pencil-slim vaulter's build.
In April of this year Gutowski was ready. The runway at Stanford felt good. The pole was perfect—not too stiff, not too whippy. The weather was benign. He jumped 15 feet 8¼ inches—higher than anyone had ever gone before—outdoors (indoor marks are not accepted as world records).
Slowly, the track world accepted Gutowski as their new champion and not just a freak record setter. At the Coliseum Relays, Gutowski put Richards away and then soared over 15 feet 6 inches. He made 15 feet 3 inches at Modesto and at Compton he won again with a 15-foot 4-inch vault. Last week at Austin came the biggest triumph of all.
The art of the pole vault, in the opinion of Gutowski's present coach, Chuck Coker, is the most difficult in field events and requires some 32 separate coordinated movements. Gutowski has the necessary sprinter's speed and the manual dexterity. Practice of the art requires stomach muscles of coiled steel (the push-off at the top tears fiercely at the abdomen)—and Gutowski hardened his by months of arduous leg presses in the weight lifters' room. It requires the suppleness of a platform diver (the twisting hip curl at the top of the jump cannot be done from a locked position)—and Gutowski was an enthusiastic aquatic star before he ever saw a vaulting pole. It requires the assiduity of a born student (pole vaulting, like golf, is not instinctive in all its phases and must be engineered in the mind before it can be performed by the body)—and Gutowski is a better than average analytical student in his major.
Finally, it requires the physique and reflexes of a middleweight boxer—and Gutowski at 6 feet, 150 pounds, is neither too small nor too heavy and can shift weight like Ray Robinson.
A no-nonsense young man, Bob Gutowski is nonchalant about his achievements. In his tiny room under the stands of the football field, where he can study in the rich aromatic atmosphere of linament and sweat,there are more schoolbooks than newspaper clippings. And there is no set of job-printed pep talks or crossbars marked "16 feet." Gutowski's tough, tawny eyes grow derisive at the thought of such "mental crutches." Sixteen feet? "Just a matter of time," he says soothingly.