The pole vault crossbar was now at 17'10", a world-record height, and at the end of the runway Bob Seagren patted his hair into place; for the last time at the California Relays the crowd was ready for something special.
"Next up in the pole vault," the man said over the public-address system, "is Bob Seagren, the present world-record holder and Olympic champion. Boy, there sure are stars all over on that field tonight, aren't there?"
Seagren looked up at the sky. "Stars?" he said. "Stars? Where are there stars?"
Dick Railsback, the UCLA pole vaulter, looked up, too. "Well, there are stars," he said. "But tonight they're falling stars."
June 1, 1969
Seagren laughed and randomly pointed across the field. "Yeah," he said, "there goes one now."
Seagren was kidding, but last Saturday's meet in Modesto—the same meet that has been the setting for 22 world and 37 American records in its 28-year history—will this year be remembered more for what it promised rather than for what it delivered. There were no world records, one American record (in the junior college 440-yard relay) and only three meet records. And in the end, no matter where you pointed, there was a star or a relay team whose luster was dimmed.
There was, first of all, the 100-meter dash. John Carlos, it was promised, would meet Charlie Greene and reestablish his claim to be the World's Fastest Human. But Greene, who is in the Army, decided "not to break training" by running in a meet, and Carlos won in 10.1. This victory, along with his win in the 220 and his anchor leg on San Jose State's triumphant 440-yard relay team, earned him his sixth straight outstanding performer award.
Then there was San Jose's 880-yard relay team, which was primed to break the world record it had missed by .2 earlier this year. "Putting our best times together we beat it [the record] easily." Lee Evans said. "We're predestined to have it." Instead, they couldn't even try. Ronnie Ray Smith, the No. 3 leg, aggravated an old hamstring injury in the 440 relay and San Jose scratched.
"We've been telling people all over we were going to get the record," said leadoff man Sam Davis. "And what we were really saying was that we were going to blow everyone off the track. Hell, for once we didn't all go out the night before a race and mess around." While Davis talked, he watched the Houston Striders win in 1:23.8, 1.5 slower than San Jose's best this season.
And, finally, there was Villanova, which hoped to set an American record in the two-mile relay but finished third behind Wisconsin and Washington State. "How can you come out here and run so badly?" Marty Liquori said. "How can each of us come out and run the worst time he's run all season long? I can't believe it."
Wisconsin, for one, could. Buried in the snows and mud of the Midwest, it had long waited to run, not only against Villanova, but a world-class field. Its only other big two-mile relay had been at Drake, where it lost by a nose to Kansas State. "Villanova's always got the ink," said Ray Arrington, the Badgers' No. 3 leg. "And maybe they deserve it because they have good runners. But we have good runners, too, and we think it's about time we shared the ink."
Arrington, who had run the anchor at Drake, switched for this race with Mark Winzenried, and it was Winzenried's 1:46.7 that carried Wisconsin to within .4 of the American record (7:17.4). "We have always had a better relay team than most people," Winzenried said. "But no one ever hears of us. We never get invited anywhere."
Leon Coleman also had something to prove, and did. Coleman has been chasing Willie Davenport over hurdles all year while Willie was compiling a 22-race win streak. "I'm really tired of people coming up to me," Coleman said before the race, "and, just because I run hurdles, saying, "Hi, Willie, how ya doing?' Of course, they don't know who I am. But I'm just tired of being Willie." After the 120-yard highs, which Coleman won in a wind-aided 13.5, he acted like a man with a new-found life—his own.
But it wasn't until much later that the most spectacular promise was left unfulfilled. "It's important to be the first man to go 18 feet," Seagren said. "It's like going to the moon. You may find nothing but a lot of rocks and dirt, but it's important to be the first. They can take a world record from you. But they can never take away that you were the first to clear 18 feet. It's the glory of it. It just sounds good to be called the first."
It didn't happen at Modesto. John Pennel and Seagren both cleared 17 feet. Then, despite Seagren's objection, the crossbar was, at Pennel's request, raised to 17'10", which they both missed. Pennel won the event, since he cleared 17 feet on his first try while Seagren needed two attempts. Said Pennel: "I told Seagren that he had had the world record long enough and that I wanted to take it away from him. By asking for a lower height he wanted to prevent me from getting the record." Said Seagren: "I didn't want to go straight to 17'10" because I wanted to warm up for a try at 18 feet."
Railsback is also infatuated with the mystical height of 18 feet. "I get much inner satisfaction from vaulting," he says. "Like some people enjoy playing the guitar. If they feel like it, they'll just sit down and play it. Me, I'll go out and vault. If I satisfy myself, if I'm happy, then I feel all right, even if I lose.
"But 18 feet? Maybe that's my ego trip. After all the work I've put in. I'd like to be remembered. I just don't want to go by the wayside like so many good athletes I've seen. I think this is the only tangible thing I want from vaulting."
This attitude has led to a virtual disdain for world records. Two weeks ago at the Pacific Eight championships Rails-back cleared 17'6 l/4", skipped any attempt at Seagren's world record of 17'9" and tried 18 feet. On his closest attempt he brushed the crossbar off with his chest. Despite his near success he got a new, firmer pole four days later. Pennel had three poles at Modesto, with differences as slight as one having an extra layer of glass for more firmness. And Seagren, who had strained abdominal muscles, ignored his doctor's orders to "quit when it hurt" so he wouldn't be sitting when someone else was going for 18 feet.
"I couldn't stand the thought of having somebody jumping it and me not there to fight," he said. "That's the only reason I'm here. Thinking that someone might get it for free made me come."
After Pennel won, Seagren said, "I think it was chicken going to 17'10". That record doesn't mean a damn thing. Eighteen feet has got to come sometime. I don't know what we were messing around with 17'10" for. There's only one thing that counts."