The first time John Uelses tried to vault over 16 feet, he failed in the delicate coordination of speed, balance, strength and patience that is required to manage the flexible fiber-glass vaulting pole he uses. Mostly he failed in patience.
He scrambled out of the pit at Madison Square Garden, where he was competing in the Millrose Games, and walked over to Aubrey Dooley, who is his superior officer at Quantico, Va. Marine Lieutenant Dooley gave Marine Corporal Uelses (pronounced Yool-sez) a few words of advice. John picked up the dark-brown glass pole and returned to the runway for his second try at 16 feet and a quarter of an inch.
"I told him to wait longer for the kick from the pole," Dooley said. "On fiber glass you have to wait and wait and wait and then you have to wait a little longer. He rushed that last vault and threw his feet into the crossbar."
Uelses stood quietly about two-thirds of the way down the 140-foot board runway. As he composed himself, Dooley said, in a very quiet voice, "He's going to make 16 feet tonight. You watch." Uelses did not make it on his second try, however. Again he failed to wait for the glass pole to uncoil and give him the extra flip of momentum he needed to get over.
Again he came over to Dooley and talked briefly and seriously for a moment. "I told him to wait, keep his shoulders parallel to the ground and pray," Dooley said. "He needs all the help he can get on this one."
This time Uelses waited. The brown vaulting pole bent in a deep, taut arc, and Uelses hung on it upside down for what seemed a long time until the pole snapped straight. Uelses pulled himself up into a handstand at the top of it, legs aimed at the smoky ceiling of the Garden. Then, in a quick rush, he was clear over the crossbar, with inches to spare, and dropping down.
In the sudden rush of well-wishers and photographers toward the pit someone knocked the crossbar off the standards. This set off a 24-hour flurry of speculation as to whether or not Uelses would be credited with his world indoor record, because the bar could not be measured again after his vault. Uelses himself seemed shocked when he heard this.
"What should I do, coach?" he asked Jumbo Jim Elliott, the Villanova coach who had Uelses under his care on the American track team that competed in Europe last summer.
"Keep your mouth shut," Jumbo said. "Just tell them you'll do it again."
Uelses followed Elliott's advice. "If this one doesn't count, I'll do it again," he said. Then, the next night in Boston, he did. This time he cleared 16 feet ¾ of an inch, and no one knocked the crossbar down.
It is understandable that Dooley, Uelses' teacher, seemed a bit wistful after his pupil's success. Dooley was one of the first successful riders on the whippy fiber-glass pole. Only his inability to run fast enough kept him from 16 feet. "Speed is an essential on this pole," Dooley said after Uelses' vault. "I can run a hundred in about 10.3. John does it in 9.7. When you plant this pole, it's a soft plant. It bends immediately and takes up the shock of forward momentum and translates it into lift. The old, stiff poles transmitted all the jar of the plant to your arms and shoulders, so that sometimes speed might be a handicap, unless you were unusually strong—like Don Bragg, for instance. John's speed gives him a hell of a lot of lift. And he learns fast. I worked with George Davies [who holds the pending outdoor record of 15 feet 10¼] for three months. John learned everything I could teach him in three weeks."
Uelses is a handsome, neatly built 24-year-old who was born in Germany and came to the U.S. in 1949. He attended the University of Alabama a year before entering the Marines. When he gets out about a month from now he will go to Southern Illinois University, where he believes Coach Lew Hartzog can help him with his vaulting. Uelses looks like a pleasant cross between Cary Grant and Henry Fonda; now 6 feet 1 and 171 pounds, he will probably add weight in his chest and shoulders—which may put a bigger strain on the flexible pole but will surely give him more lift.
"I think 16-6 is in reach for me," he said after his first vault over 16 feet. He may have underestimated his potential. At the top of his vault in the Garden he had six inches between himself and the crossbar.
Another vaulter who seems sure to hit 16 feet soon is Dexter Elk ins of Southern Methodist. Elkins, vaulting in one of the very successful indoor meets held this winter in Texas, tried 16 feet ½ inch in Dallas on the same night Uelses did 16 feet ¼ inch. On his last try Elkins knocked the crossbar off coming down. He tried to reach Boston the next night to compete with Uelses, but his plane was grounded in Chicago. He suffered a fate similar to Parry O'Brien, who reached Madison Square Garden during the Millrose Games only moments after 19-year-old Gary Gubner, a sophomore at NYU, broke O'Brien's world indoor shotput record.
Parry had been trying to get out of Los Angeles for 24 hours; he may have been lucky in failing, since he preserved a long unbeaten streak indoors by not meeting Gubner that night. The tremendously powerful youngster put the leather indoor shot 63 feet 10¼ inches; this is within inches of the farthest distance that Parry has put the shot outdoors. Gubner could be the first man to hit 70 feet. After Uelses' vaults and Snell's two races in New Zealand, we may have to forget about many other supposed limits in track events.