JOHN PENNEL: A SORE-BACKED WINE SALESMAN
The most exciting human projectile since Hugo Zacchini, who earned his living by having himself fired from a cannon, is an insouciant young man named John Pennel. Pennel is fired from the end of a willowy 16-foot fiber-glass pole and performs, unlike the high-calibered Zacchini, strictly for fun, at least during the indoor track season. He has, in recent weeks, broken the world indoor vault record (16 feet 9½ inches in Los Angeles two weeks ago) and the Millrose Games and Madison Square Garden record in New York. Saturday night in Boston he came within a misplaced thigh of being the first man to reach 17 feet indoors. But of all his recent leaps, the 16-foot 5-inch effort in New York last week (right) probably was the most perfect. The many and intricate elements of the pole vault came together where Pennel needed them most—directly over the bar. Viewing sequence pictures later, Pennel marveled at what had happened and estimated he could have cleared another foot had the bar been set at that height.
Pennel was not made particularly angry by his failure to go higher in New York. "The indoor season is fun," he said. "I have a good time, but it isn't serious. I don't want to peak too early. I save that for outdoors."
Pennel at 25 is a compact 5 feet 11, weighs 170 pounds, most of them packed into superbly developed arm, chest and shoulder muscles. He was the first man ever to vault 17 feet outdoors, and he may be the first to make 18. "I have not set a ceiling for myself," he says. "But I'm sure 18 feet 3 is possible, maybe 18 feet 6."
February 7, 1966
Pennel started vaulting on a used TV antenna when he was a youngster in Miami, where his father owns a welding-equipment company. A minor sensation at Coral Gables High, where he also played sousaphone in the band and piano to please his mother, he entered Northeast Louisiana State College and swapped his steel pole for an aluminum one. He did 15 feet¾ on aluminum but, in the meantime, John Uelses reached 16 feet on fiber glass, and Pennel switched again. The best he could manage during that first season on glass was 14 feet 8 and it took him two years to climb to 15 feet 4.
"I couldn't get used to the bend," he says. "I was scared of it."
By 1963 he had conquered his fear, learned the difficult acrobatic technique required on glass and, in an amazing outdoor season, bettered the world record six times and tied it once. After pushing the ceiling to 16 feet 10 in London, he predicted that he would go over 17. He made good on the promise by clearing 17 feet¾ inches in Miami in August.
Pennel might have cleared 18 feet by now except for a long series of crippling injuries, among them a broken heel in 1964. For the last 10 years he has been troubled with a sore back, which has finally been diagnosed as a slipped disc. It flared up in Tokyo just before the Olympic Games. "I had done 17 feet easily in practice," Pennel says. "Then I strained the disc badly and, instead of quitting, I went on and tried three more vaults. That was a mistake."
It was, indeed. Pennel spent most of his time in Tokyo in bed, where a variety of trainers and doctors took turns misdiagnosing his injury. One East German trainer said that he had a pulled muscle and gave him a deep massage with a stick. This left him with a badly bruised back as well as a slipped disc.
"Everybody thought I was through," Pennel says. "For a long time I thought so, too. I had a job as a sports announcer on Channel 4 in Miami, and I wasn't training. But subconsciously I must have known that I would be back. When CBS offered me the announcing job, I didn't take it until I had checked the AAU about my eligibility."
Pennel's back gradually improved. By last year, just before the AAU championships in San Diego, he felt that it was strong enough for him to vault again.
He quit his CBS job so that he would have time to work out, although that hardly seemed necessary since Pennel, never an arduous trainer at best, required only three practice sessions in the two weeks before the meet. He won at 17 feet.
A friend of Pennel's, John Dobroth, a dedicated, superanalytical high jumper, says: "There is no telling what John could do if he worked hard at it or if he were analytical in his approach."
Lack of training was not Pennel's trouble last summer in the Russian-American meet in Kiev, where he suffered a double disaster: he lost to Gennady Bliznetsov, and all three of his poles were stolen.
"I didn't have any more poles right for my weight," Pennel says, "that is, 175-pound test. A pole is as individual as a pole vaulter. You may have six that test out 175, and every one will react differently. I had to use 170-pound test poles the rest of the trip, and I didn't get over 16 feet 5."
Pennel has just moved to Los Angeles, where the competition is keener and the training facilities better than in his native Miami. He is a sales representative for a California vintner, an occupation which he hopes will give him enough time for vaulting. This spring he will step up his training schedule, and it seems likely that the first man—other than Hugo Zacchini—to propel himself over 18 feet into the air without benefit of an engine will be a sore-backed wine salesman named John Pennel.
PEGGY FLEMING: A LITTLE GIRL FOR A TOUGH SPORT
Wearing a regal gold dress and winning as stylishly as she was clad, with firsts from all five judges for both her school figures and the free skating, shy, blue-eyed Peggy Fleming took the U.S. Senior Ladies' figure-skating title last week for the third year in a row. She is preparing to take on the world. "Flawless" and "superb" are a few of the descriptions of her free skating, and the judges' evaluations of her school figures were even higher. Now if the United States can just get Peggy Fleming to eat more meat, the country may have it made.
Seventeen-year-old Peggy, at 5 feet 3½ and 108 pounds, is a little girl for a tough sport, and a little girl, according to Olympic Gold Medalist Dick Button, with deplorable eating habits and, consequently, not enough stamina. "She was stronger this time," he conceded after the competition in Berkeley, Calif. last Friday, but he clearly intends to go on lecturing her fiercely on the nutritional superiority of steak over macaroni; he has been known to take her to dinner, with her mother, and refuse to leave the restaurant until Peggy had finished all her protein.
There is no doubt that keeping Peggy's strength up should be important to everybody here who cares about figure skating. She is an exquisite skater, lyrical, expressive and technically fine, "...a skater who has a unique combination of athletic ability, technical control, great style and immense musicality," as Button wrote of her last year, taking time off from his eat-more-meat campaign to observe that she had skated at the world championships.
Button does not want a stronger Peggy in order that she might skate differently. "She is a delicate lady on the ice," he says. "She is not a fiery skater, and she shouldn't be made to be. With some skaters there is a lot of fuss and feathers, but nothing is happening. With Peggy there's no fuss and feathers, and a great deal is happening. She does certain small things which I know from experience are difficult, hard to do and hard to learn, but some people [some judges] can't even realize she's doing them. The only other skater in her class since the war has been Tenley Albright."
The last is an important accolade. A U.S. figure-skating championship has been an elusive honor for some years now, since the jet crash in Brussels in 1961 that killed our accomplished skaters, our promising skaters and many of the teachers who could teach skaters. The winners of U.S. competitions for a time could not help but be the best of a fledgling lot, and Button's estimation of Peggy's ability allows her to quit next week if she wants to without running the risk of going down in history, as Floyd Patterson so needlessly feared he might, dismissed as an untested champion.
The Fleming family consists of Mr. and Mrs. Albert Fleming, Peggy and her sisters, Janice, Maxine and Cathy, who are 18, 15 and 11 respectively. Mr. Fleming is a newspaper printer of the old, meaning itinerant, breed, and the Flemings have moved so frequently around this country and Canada that it is difficult to keep all the years and places straight. However, Peggy's older sister, Janice, remembers when Peggy first put on skates. It was eight years ago in the Cleveland Arena. "We had never been near an ice rink before," Janice says, "but we were looking for something to do. It was amazing. Peggy took to skates right off. She didn't wobble or anything, she just started skating as though she had been at it for a long time."
She stayed at it through the long succession of moves, studying where and with whom she could, until the family's most recent Peggy-oriented move landed them in Colorado Springs, near the Broadmoor Hotel ice school, where she studies now with its coach, Carlo Fassi.
The life Peggy leads is the virtually inevitable life of a young champion—practice at dawn, practice after school, a rudimentary social life and a state of mild distortion of family affairs to help Peggy make her own demands upon herself. She has one advantage over many young champions—a school, the Cheyenne Mountain High School, which has had a number of figure-skating champions and so understands her problems. The good of this seems minimal, however, since she got there only last fall, in time for her senior year.
It is an admirable, but always rather sad-sounding life, and Peggy, an immensely shy and self-contained child, says the admirable but always rather sad-sounding things about living it. "There are lots of disappointments...sometimes I fight against being human...but in overcoming these I learn, and that makes my life worthwhile."
Peggy came in third in the world championships last year, after Petra Burka of Canada and Regine Heitzer of Austria. She will be facing the same competition at the championships in Davos, Switzerland later this month, but she goes as a—literally—stronger challenger. And she has the technique, style, musical sense and a special grace that make her the most impressive U.S. skater in a decade.