Something there is, as Robert Frost might have said, that doesn't love a pole vaulter. He is a superspecial, technique-mad, slightly ridiculous pseudo-athlete, an oddity for size, speed and stamina and unsuited to sane events. The vaulter is a sullied gymnast needing long runways, tall uprights and enough foam rubber to meet six months' production at Maidenform. The ludicrous implement of his art trips two milers, clobbers potted palms in hotel lobbies and is a cumbersome outrage to sky caps and cab drivers. More wretchedly, the vaulter wastes other people's time. Neither shin splints, foul weather nor an eight-man, 40-mile relay can delay the conclusion of a track meet quite so consistently as any pole-vault field worthy of its fiber glass. But if all this were not enough, there are the names. Vaulting's world list is glutted with such copyreader's nightmares as Isaksson, Papanicolaou, Lagerqvist, Kalliomaki, Dionisi, Kuretzky and Tracanelli.
How delightfully ironic then that the brightest star of the current indoor season is an uncommonly fast-working pole vaulter by the common name of Smith, Steve Smith (see cover) to be precise, a 21-year-old from Torrance, Calif., who is less typical of his vexing species than Tom Hayden would be standing in for an American Legion commander. He is a throwback to the preplastic days when the vault was the province of the muscular, not the nimble. Standing 6'1½" and weighing 185 pounds, Smith is built like a duffel bag full of bowling balls and not at all like the usual lithe types found clinging to the downward arc of a Sky Pole, which Smith employs wondrously well and with as much fun as his first love, the surfboard.
A member of the Pacific Coast Club, Smith has performed in eight indoor meets this year, tirelessly leapfrogging the country for weekend appearances on both coasts as the schedule dictates. Twice he has broken the world indoor record, which he plans to push upward to 19 feet or so, perhaps before everyone goes outside again. At New York's Millrose Games, Smith was the sole salvation in a tedious meet for a Madison Square Garden crowd of 15,043 when he raised his own record to 18'¼". Six days before, with little more than three hours' sleep, he had vaulted 17'11" in Los Angeles to break Kjell Isaksson's indoor record of 17'10½". More impressive than either performance is the fact that Smith has won all eight meets, has averaged over 17'6" in each of them and had expended but 35 vaults in doing all this. So consistent are his achievements that a gracious Canadian record crowd of 15,949 was moderately disappointed last Friday night in Toronto when he failed three times at 18'1" after winning the Star Maple Leaf Games at 17'5½", a Canadian mark.
Three tries at a record was a departure from the competitive philosophy espoused by PCC Coach Tom Jennings, who believes that vaulters should end their competition with a success rather than a failure. Toward that goal, Smith inevitably reaches the meet after everyone has been running through the pit for 45 minutes. He passes the lesser heights to begin at 17 feet, takes another vault at an intermediate height and goes for the world record on his last one. The brash tactics reflect the phenomenal confidence Smith has in his ability. When soaring on schedule, he requires but three tries and less time than it takes Frank Shorter to run a marathon.
February 12, 1973
Crowds love Smith for more than his easy acquisition of records or the lethal suddenness with which he destroys the field, for the lad is nothing if not a showman. Sporting a pair of cranberry-colored, psychedelic ski pants that he bought on sale for $5, he never vaults when the crowd's attention may be diverted to some trivial event like the mile run. Rather, he waits for the proper, dramatic lull both for his own concentration and the inevitable expectant murmur that will add to his adrenaline flow. A successful vault generates obvious, boundless joy and, as it was at the Garden, joyous bounding out of the pit followed by a leaping victory lap interrupted long enough to crush Jennings in a massive bear hug.
It was not always so, even though Smith reigned as the California school champion during his last two years at South Torrance High and vaulted 16'8¾" one week after graduation at the 1969 Golden West Invitational. A freshman year at USC followed and it was memorable only for frustrations and pressure. "I wouldn't have stayed there that long if my father hadn't made me," he says. "He said I'd have to give it a fair chance. I think the biggest problem was that it was the year Bob Seagren left and I was expected to fill his shoes. That really got me down. For a college freshman I had enough pressure just trying to adjust. Assistant Coach Ken Matsuda always badgered me. Nothing personal. I know he was trying to give me confidence, but he just scared me. There was probably more pressure from within."
Smith transferred to California State at Long Beach, an act that cost him a season of collegiate eligibility and led him into the PCC. He got his first 17' vault at the California Relays in Modesto in 1971 and later that summer cleared 17'1" in the Kennedy Games at Berkeley. But the biggest impetus toward Smith's evolution as a world-class vaulter came in February of last year when he started to work on his technique with Dick Tomlinson, the assistant coach at El Camino Junior College. Smith calls Tomlinson "the best field event coach in the nation."
It was Ted Banks, an assistant Long Beach coach, who touted Smith on Tomlinson, but Banks rescinded his advice and Smith was in another college controversy. "Banks was promised the head coaching job at Long Beach State this year," Smith says, "and since the school is trying to go big time, someone decided that it wasn't very good public relations to have its college record-holding pole vaulter working out with another coach." Banks ordered Smith to train nowhere but in Long Beach, Smith refused, lost his scholarship and went full time with the Pacific Coast Club.
"I wasn't learning anything under the Long Beach coaching staff," Smith says. "Their pole-vault coach is a graduate assistant who was a sprinter. He knows less about the event than I did when I started at the age of 10. Tomlinson's the guy who developed me. He improved me one foot in one year and no other 17-foot vaulter has ever done that. I'd probably still be jumping 17 feet if it weren't for him."
Tomlinson denies a prevalent rumor that his work with Smith has produced some fantastic new discovery in the science of pole vaulting. "What happened," he says, "is that everyone was getting cheap marks off the glass pole and they lost the original concepts of vaulting. The principles Steve uses are very much like Bob Richards' and anyone else on the steel pole. We had to go back to that. When Steve went 17'11" in the Sports Arena, I imagine he went out 40 inches over his hand hold. There is no way the pole made that vault; it was his technique.
"Steve may not be the fastest vaulter in the world, but his last 30 feet to the box are. He hits the box with more velocity than any other vaulter. This is because he has a complete lack of inhibition. Also he has a very early plant. He uses his arms to control the pole, to take up the shock. Most vaulters, when they plant, take the shock in the right shoulder and then the pole bends. He bends the pole with his arms."
"My motivation is to be the best pole vaulter in the world," Smith said earlier last week. "I don't want to be the best in the gym room, the trampoline room or in practice, just in competition. I've always had that drive and Dick put me in the right direction. I really haven't changed that much in the past year or so. I am stronger, but the thing is that now I know completely what to do. Before, if I had a bad vault, I would become flustered. Now I know how to adjust my step and move the standards. I used to be a first jump vaulter, now I have confidence in my third jump. It's not just maturing. I am sure of myself now. If I screw up, I know why. If I do well, I know why."
What kept Smith from reaching 18'1" at Toronto was a sore tendon across the top of his right foot that limited him to a single workout and no running during the week prior to the meet. "I could take one run down the runway and my foot might go," he said the night before the meet. "But I've been in this situation before and it was O.K. I just taped it up. I can jump 18 feet with a pulled muscle. Isaksson hurt his leg in San Francisco and couldn't jump the next day. He's small. For him everything has to be just right."
Pain is something Smith has had to learn to live with. Last July he made the Olympic team with an 18'½" vault while suffering from a pulled groin muscle. Seagren won the Trials with a world record of 18'5¾". Smith hopes to obliterate that record in the near future.
"Bob and I have never been on the best of terms," Smith says. "He's never related much to the other vaulters. After the Olympic Trials I went over to him and said, 'Isaksson will beat you. He is the best in the world."
"During a meet I'm not all that congenial either," he adds, "but before and after the competition I like most of the vaulters. They're a different breed than any I've ever met. It's the nature of the event itself. It takes a funny kind of guy who wants to run down that thing with a pole in his hands.
"I like vaulting, and being on the Pacific Coast Club has really helped me. I room with Al Feuerbach on the road and he's convinced me that the only thing that limits people is their minds. It's phenomenal what he has done and I hope I can do as much for my physical stature in the pole vault as he has with the shot. I really don't think there is any limit. I'm always asked what I think my potential is, and there's no answer. I want to jump so high that no one, not even the other vaulters, will believe it."
That is not likely to happen right away. Smith returned to his classes as a non-vaulting Long Beach State senior on Monday, two days after he won in Seattle with 17'7¾". He was surprised with his effort since he had spent the entire day trying to get to Seattle by plane, finally making it at 6 p.m. after a 2½-hour automobile ride. Tired and still hurting, he needed five leaps to win that one. This April he hopes to compete in a multiracial meet in South Africa, of all places, if Jennings is successful at obtaining the AAU travel permits he requested from Ollan Cassell.
"As of now we can't go," says Jennings, a man whom the AAU has barred for life for saying derogatory things about the organization. "The AAU says it is not their policy to send athletes to South Africa. Since this is a multiracial meet, that's really ironic. In effect, the AAU is helping to reinforce apartheid."
At Toronto, as at so many other meets this indoor season, Smith was the main reinforcement for a card that was variously mottled. The three miles was won by Kip Keino, who was to turn pro two days later, after Toronto's Grant McLaren, then leading, stumbled on the last lap. Marty Liquori invested new glamour in the mile with a roguish matching track suit, but his expected showdown with Bob Wheeler did not materialize when Wheeler ran into the pole-vault runway and dropped out of the race with a noticeable limp. The high jumpers did uphold their end with the entire five-man field clearing 7'1". Dwight Stones, Smith's PCC teammate, won at 7'3½", his best jump ever and a Canadian record.
Big deal. The pole vault had ended 90 minutes earlier.