A wonderful bird is the pole vaulter. He is supreme among track and field athletes because in his one event he is the synthesis of them all, combining—in relatively moderate supply, of course—the speed of a sprinter with the strength of a javelin thrower and the spring and elasticity of a high jumper. He must also have some of the endurance of a distance runner, because often he will still be working when everybody else has gone to bed. His 16-foot vaulting pole makes it necessary that he be cunning, too, in order to get it safely from one competition to another, to keep it out of the ears of pedestrians at the crowded intersections around arenas like Madison Square Garden and to get it in and out of taxicabs. Don Bragg was almost electrocuted once when his pole hit a power line as he tried to board a train at Philadelphia's 30th Street station. A problem more prevalent today is knowing which airlines will let him take the pole with him, because a vaulter must always take it with him. In the end it helps that he learn to appreciate the glamour of his event, because when he is as good as Bob Seagren (see cover) girls wait for him in hotel lobbies and call him long distance in the middle of the night.
One thing a pole vaulter does not have any more is longevity. As a modern hero his fame is bright but short. It used to be different, back when Bob Richards was vaulting. Bob won two Olympic gold medals four years apart and track people accepted the possibility that they would have to put up with him forever. There was a degree of permanence to every new record. It took 13 years for the world record to rise from 14 to 15 feet. When Don Bragg "came down from outer space" (as headline writers were inspired to say in 1960), down from 15'9¼", it was a very big event and followers of the pole vault settled back for a long siege of Braggadocio. Don was young, curly-haired and bulging with muscles and ideas. He said his plans were to win the Olympic gold medal, which he did in September of that year, and to play Tarzan in the movies. "If I can learn to vault," he reasoned, "I can learn to act." What he learned instead was how ruthless the advance of technology could be.
In May of 1961 an Oklahoma State sophomore named George Davies flexed his fiber-glass pole, gathered himself into a knot at the end of it and, as much to his own surprise as anybody's, soared 15'10¼" outdoors. Don Bragg was at least resentful. "That's catapulting, not vaulting," he said, with some justification. He moved that the glass pole be outlawed, or made a separate event.
But soon every vaulter worth a flip had acquired one and the skies were filled with flying bodies. George Davies was soon forgotten. In rapid succession a German immigrant named John Hans Feigenbaum (his adopted name was John Uelses), Dave Tork, a 27-year-old marine, Pentti Nikula, a Finn, C. K. Yang, a Chinese from UCLA, and Brian Sternberg of Seattle, perhaps the best of them all, had set records. "Acrobats," sniffed Don Bragg as his chances to play Tarzan went flying out the window. He said an event that used to be 70% man and 30% pole was now 70% pole. Patience, he said, had taken the place of strength, that it was just a matter of waiting for that sublime snap that would send the vaulter to heaven's door.
February 20, 1967
What Bragg was resisting, naturally, was progress, an implacable enemy. The glass pole did indeed take some of the muscle out of the event, but it placed a more proportionate premium on speed and agility. A wise old head, Yale Coach Bob Giegengack, said during the heat of the controversy, "It always took an exceptional athlete to be a pole vaulter. Now it takes an even better one."
In any case, there soon was nothing exclusive about being a member of the "exclusive 16-foot club" of pole vaulting because everybody but Orson Welles was vaulting 16 feet. Then, one warm day in Coral Gables, Fla., a former sousaphone player named John Pennel, who had started vaulting with a used television antenna and admitted to an early fear of Big Bend, that marvelous fiber-glass pole, cleared 17 feet. Bragg quit fighting.
That was in August of 1963. Now there are six pole vaulters who have done 17 feet or better: Pennel, Seagren, Paul Wilson, Sam Kirk and Fred Hansen of the United States and Wolfgang Norwig of East Germany. Hansen, who won the 1964 Olympic gold medal in Tokyo, retired a contented man at age 24. Pennel is 26, and he has been out for months with wrist and shoulder injuries and will not compete again until spring, but he has by no means retired. Any day now one of the remaining four will do 18 feet or more, as sure as Bob Richards eats breakfast food. If you concede that Pennel, older and hurting, has been eclipsed, then the man for this job is Robert Lloyd Seagren, who used to be Pennel's roommate until he found out what a lousy housekeeper Pennel was.
Seagren, the man for this season, is 20, a handsome dog with a made-in-Los Angeles personality and a little-boy smile that knocks girls out. He is obviously no intellectual, because he thinks we ought to be in Vietnam and ought not to take seriously those "nuts" at Berkeley. Vaulting has been taking up most of his time since he was 11, and he is in a hurry. He thinks he can do 18 feet indoors before the spring thaw. He already held the indoor record before this season but improved it to 17'2" at Albuquerque three weeks ago and would have added an inch to that this weekend in Los Angeles had his pole not gone underneath the crossbar after he had cleared the height. For a couple of months last year he had the outdoor record, too, but Pennel got that back in July with a vault of 17'6¼".
Seagren is now at the University of Southern California, where one of his fellow sophomores is Paul Wilson. In the absence of Pennel, Wilson is Seagren's principal opposition. The USC track coach enjoying this extravagance of talent is Vern Wolfe, himself an ex-pole vaulter (bamboo) who knows the best way to coach good pole vaulters is as little as possible. His two stars are not alike: Wilson is a purist, a student of the vault who can tell you the physical properties of the pole, its transverse deflection ratio, its cantilever test score and its resale value at the Army-Navy surplus store. Seagren might casually drop into a postmeet interview the notion that there are "32 phases" to correct execution of the vault, but he picked that up from someone else and would not want to be held to an inventory. The sum of the parts is what interests Seagren. He is what in sports is romantically called "a natural."
The other day he was in Coach Wolfe's office at USC, watching movies of his triumph at Albuquerque. Not all of the fun he had had there was on film. Vaulter-about-town, he had enjoyed himself and had got a kick out of the Albuquerque paper that said he was up until 4 a.m. after the meet because he was too excited over his new record to sleep. It was not his record that kept him up. But now, on the coach's wall, the flickering image of Bob Seagren the vaulter did not please him. Bob was turning off the pole too soon, Vern Wolfe said, sliding to the right before he got maximum height. "Oh, bad vault, bad vault," Bob said. "I can't believe that. That's not even close to being perfect." Wolfe smiled and said tenderly, "Bobby, you don't make perfect vaults, except once every three or four weeks."
By his own appraisal, Seagren often "slops up into the air" and then tries to muscle through to make up for his loss of form. He estimates that he has spoiled numerous record jumps doing that when, as happened last week, the pole followed him into the pit. There are times when he fouls out at heights he should be able to clear in an overcoat. At Fresno the day he did 17'5½" he almost went out at 15'6". On his third try at that height, he blocked—i.e., ran down the runway, planted the pole in the box and stopped without jumping—eight straight times. "The fans were yelling, 'Get that guy out of there,' " Seagren says, "and an official told me he'd have to disqualify me if I didn't jump, so I finally did and made it."
Seagren complains that he does not have the coordinated hand action of Hansen or Pennel, that he frequently pushes off with one hand instead of two and other times he just looks plain tired going over the bar. But these are things only he might see in himself, and the point is he does get over the bar, somehow, and usually at that moment when all would be lost if he did not. In New York at the Millrose Games he injured his back and still he set a meet record of 16'7". He could have quit then, but the bar was raised to 17'2", and he prepared to go on. Vern Wolfe walked over to him. "Don't you think you ought to quit, Bobby?" "Hell no, coach. You know I can't quit now."
As a breed pole vaulters just naturally seem to be a daring bunch, else they would not be flying around up there on a swizzle stick that weighs only four pounds and is not built to last. (Seagren has broken 15 poles, but fortunately has never been broken himself.) They appear to thrive not so much on the competition but on the experience. Gifted with instant enthusiasm, they always seem to want to try something, anything. The desire for experience is the sort that makes Bob Seagren declare he wants to be a pilot when, for the first time, he is allowed into the cockpit of a plane and sees all those flashing lights and levers, and makes him say to a man back from Africa that he would give his right arm to hunt something there.
In Pomona, 25 miles due east of Los Angeles, where he grew up, Seagren rode his motorbike two years ago at breakneck speeds around the hills below Mt. Baldy. Often he had climbed the mountain and crawled through the narrow underground passages of Cucamonga Canyon, daring them to swallow him up. He put a 1958 Cadillac engine into a 1940 Ford sedan to see what it could do. He got expelled from school for a week for painting "Pomona High" in big red letters on the gymnasium wall of a rival school. The artistry wasn't as exciting as the execution—he had to shinny up 30 feet of drainpipe to get to the chosen spot.
His brother Art, four years his senior, aroused Bob's appetite for pole vaulting. Art was full of great ideas. He took the bamboo poles out of the rolled-up rugs at a nearby carpet store and the two of them went vaulting from one garage roof to another, terrorizing the old ladies of the neighborhood. A couple of times Bob tried too hard to keep up with his big brother and plunged into clotheslines, twanging his neck. Art himself went nose first into the mud of a stream bed and almost suffocated. They never could get enough of that wonderful peril. Today when the brothers are home in Pomona on weekends they get their skateboards and race six miles down the concrete wash from Mt. Baldy Dam at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour.
"It's hairy," says Bob.
Arthur Seagren Sr. wanted his boys to be professional baseball players. He had been a good athlete himself back in Illinois, had moved to California to drive a Pepsi-Cola truck and, 28 years later, is now manager of one of the larger Pepsi-Cola plants in southern California, dispensing 15,000 cases a day. But, as Bob remembers, "Dad had a glove on me all the time. I got sick of baseball. If you want to know the truth, I didn't like sitting on the bench."
So Bob followed Art's lead. Art set pole-vault records in junior high, senior high and at Mt. San Antonio Junior College, and Bob came along behind him four years later and meticulously wiped them out. Art had built himself up for handling the aluminum pole, was bigger and stronger than Bob but less supple. Bob found he could make far better use of the fiber-glass pole than Art ever did. The last piece of advice Art was able to give his little brother was that a few squirts of hair spray were great for keeping the hair in place going over the bar.
Bob was always a dead-serious trainer. He developed a hernia throwing Pepsi cases around at his dad's place—"Art hated all that sweat. I didn't mind it." He hoisted dumbbells and ran great distances and did chin-ups. He still leans to middle-distance running and gymnastics (horizontal bar, rope climb, still rings) as principal parts of his training and never attempts to vault more than 16 feet except in competition. A couple of years ago at Mt. SAC he got talked into the decathlon. Some of the events he had never tried before, others he had only sampled. "The officials laughed like mad when I threw the discus," he says in recollection. "And my first two attempts with the javelin were line drives that didn't even stick in the ground. I landed head first in the sand on my first broad jump. I couldn't keep my butt from hitting the hurdles. I was unbelievable." He was. In a field of 16 that included two Olympians, Seagren finished fifth.
Though his attitude toward scholarship was not unique ("I hated school"), Seagren's grades in high school reflected his loathing. He was advised by USC to take a stab at junior college first. His grades at Mt. SAC, which read like a cold wave, were hardly encouraging. Seagren transferred to Glendale—another junior college in California—and after some protracted sweating came up with enough credits to get into USC last fall. He still does not pretend to be a dedicated scholar. His vaulting schedule, practically year round, is too heavy and too time-consuming to permit that. So he picks his courses gingerly and jokes about it.
Seagren became friends with Pennel at the AAU championships in San Diego in 1965. Before long they were sharing an apartment in Glendale, where Pennel worked for a wine distributor and Seagren went to school. Then they moved into an old house with another USC track man, Mike Flanagan. Seagren did the housecleaning, an activity for which Pennel professed no love. They went to meets together, studied films together and together fought off the cockroaches that infested the house. On the road they had a routine for people who wanted to know what that long pole was they were carrying. "Balancing poles," said Pennel. "We've got a high-wire act. The street will be roped off at 4 o'clock. We're going to make a tight-wire run from that building to this one." "I'm riding the little bicycle," said Seagren, "and John here will be on my shoulders with his pole." They also played together and learned to appreciate the enthusiasm of feminine track fans. "It was the worst training schedule I ever had," says Seagren, "but I actually kept improving. I couldn't believe it."
Pennel, older and wiser, beat Seagren nine straight times before their abilities began to level off. For Seagren it got to be something to anticipate, like giving blood. "Beat John? Are you kidding? I never thought I would. Never thought I would vault 17 feet, either." It all came together in one night in Albuquerque about a year ago; Seagren did 17'¼", the first 17-foot vault indoors. Pennel settled for 16'6". "What a night," Seagren wrote in the little notebook he uses to record his statistics. Since Albuquerque he has vaulted against Pennel 18 times in all, Pennel winning 11, Seagren seven.
The three athletes eventually abandoned their house. Pennel was away at the time, so Seagren and Flanagan stacked his things in a corner and left a note reminding him to tend to the cockroaches. Seagren now lives by himself in an efficiency apartment near the campus. The room is decorated with pictures of people proclaiming the Pepsi generation (and a Hamm's beer sign) and scattered around are some of the things a hot-shot amateur athlete can win without corrupting his life—TV sets, typewriters, Polaroid cameras, watches, sports coats, a tape recorder.
Seagren does his own ironing, but he prefers, after a year of his own cooking, to eat out. He has pledged the Kappa Alpha fraternity. KA is strong for athletes. It gives an award, the SMIKA (smoothest man in Kappa Alpha), and has won another, the Volks Tote Award, for carrying a Volkswagen by hand. KA's spiritual leader is Robert E. Lee. Every year there is a public hanging of Ulysses S. Grant's effigy and the fraternity officially secedes from the Union. KA is pleased to have Bob Seagren. Its president says there is a spot reserved on the fraternity Hall of Fame for Seagren's picture. Bob is properly humble. He was genuinely sorry that Coach Wolfe would not let him go through Hell Week, during which KA pledges are allowed to paint, refurbish and repair their place and to suffer the whims of upperclassmen on a diet of grease sandwiches and cold chicken gumbo soup. "The trouble is," said Wolfe, "they don't let you sleep. And that diet!"
The world, Seagren has found, is a pole vaulter's oyster. His way has been paid to meets in Germany, Brazil, Finland, Mexico, Russia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Poland and Norway, and he is always amazed how nice people are. He sits around the apartment building talking about it and about his competition with great vaulters like John Pennel.
"I had the record, now John has it," he said, "and I'll get it back. We both get our turns. It's more interesting that way. John manipulates the pole better. He's like Hansen on the top, that quick turn. Flies way up. He keeps those two hands right there and it gives him more power at the release. You always see me with one hand way up here.
"John's been great to compete with. The only time I felt funny was at Albuquerque when I did 17 feet for the first time indoors. John didn't make it that night. I really thought he would, too. I didn't know what to say except, 'Sorry, John.' He'd always been ahead of me before that."
And then the telephone rang, interrupting his conversation, and what's a fellow to do but answer it?