MIKEY AND ME

The overlooked holder of the indoor and outdoor pole vaulting records is doing a slow burn because humans like Mike Tully are getting all the acclaim
April 30, 1978

So you're writing an article on Mike Tully, the UCLA senior who set the world indoor pole vault record of 18'5¼" at this year's NCAA championships. Well, you've come to the right place. I know Tully better than anyone. But before we go any further, I'd like to set something straight. That world record belongs to me, not Tully. Because I'm the pole that Mike used that afternoon in Detroit, I consider that record mine. Frankly, if you had any brains, you'd be writing an article on me, not on Tully.

I know what you're thinking—that it's the vaulter, not the pole, that makes the difference in my event. Well, if that's true, how do you explain the fact that I also hold the outdoor pole vault world record? That's right. I was the one who carried Dave Roberts over the bar at 18'8¼" during the 1976 Olympic Trials. I belonged to Earl Bell then. Earl and Dave were going for the world record at the Trials when Dave's pole snapped. So Earl loaned me to him, and on the second jump we set the record.

I can tell you with all due modesty that I am the greatest pole in history. In fact, Tully's accomplishments are a testament to my value, not to his vaulting prowess. When Earl gave me to Mike last year, Mike had cleared 18'2½" for the first time only a few weeks before and had just finished second at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. The first time Mike used me was a week later, June 11, at the AAU Championships in Los Angeles. He won there with a jump of 18'2". Since then he's cleared 18'4" in four meets, which makes him one of the world's most consistent vaulters. Late last summer we teamed up to win the World Cup in Düsseldorf on a vault of 18'4½".

This year Mike and I set an indoor record of 18'4" at the opening meet of the season, the Muhammad Ali Games in Long Beach, Calif., and then broke that record at the NCAAs, the last meet of the indoor season. Nice symmetry to that, you have to admit. In between, Mike set a sort of unofficial world record for the highest opening height when he passed at a meet in Toronto until the bar was at 18'. Naturally, he made it. That's the kind of confidence Mike has in me.

You'd think with performances like mine Mike would at least give me a nickname. But no. I think he's trying to keep all the glory for himself, because he keeps calling me by my uncatchy flex designation, 5.75. That means that if I'm stretched out horizontally and 50 pounds are hung at my middle, I'll sag 5.75 inches. That's stiff when you consider that I'm about 16'6" long, weigh less than six pounds and am hollow. In fact, I'm so stiff that you've got to be real fast and strong to use me effectively. You've got to be world class.

Officially, I'm an AMF Voit Pacer III 500/88. That's just one of 52 different models that Voit makes. The 500 refers to my length in centimeters, and the 88 means I can support 88 kilos (194 pounds). My frame, which is 70% glass and 30% resin, is clothed in white plastic tape with red and blue trim. Mike has further adorned me with about 15 inches of white ankle-wrapping tape where he holds onto me. Being just two years old, I don't have any distinguishing scars or marks. And I intend to keep it that way. We poles will last forever if handled with care, but one good scrape or scratch and we break easily. And a vaulter who weighs more than 194 pounds could break me. On a red band at my very top is a warning similar to the one the Surgeon General requires on packs of cigarettes. Mine reads: "The weight specified on this pole is a maximum which should not be exceeded."

Despite my record, I never get any recognition, not even from my friends. For instance, Earl Bell, my first owner, says the key to Mike's success is his plant. It doesn't occur to Earl that the key is Mike's pole—then again, maybe Earl is sore because I never gave him a world record. I will admit that the plant is crucial. It is made up of three separate parts. At the same instant that the vaulter's foot hits the runway on the final stride of his approach, he has to get his right hand, which is the one higher up on the pole, straight up in the air and the bottom of his pole smack into the back of the box. If these three actions aren't perfectly synchronized, even I can't help a vaulter. I guess Earl has a point, because I have to admit that lately Mike's been doing a much better job coordinating these three elements than any other vaulter.

But those three things all take place on the ground. After that it's all me. Look at Mike's record vault. All he did was sprint 125 feet down a runway and plant me in the box. I had to do the rest. First, because I had 6'3", and 190 pounds worth of Tully hanging on one end of me, while my other end was jammed solidly into the box, I bent a full 90 degrees. A fraction of a second later, I straightened up right in front of the bar. At that point all Tully had to do was let go and drop over the bar onto a nice fat cushion.

Don't get me wrong. Mike is a great guy. Everyone will tell you that. You can't help but like him. He's polite, quiet, modest, the ail-American boy. The girls in his high school class voted him Mr. Muscle. But he's like all other vaulters—he never thinks of his pole as anything but a necessary evil. It's a measure of the disrespect vaulters have for their poles that Earl would loan me to Dave and then, even after I'd set a world record, give me to Mike.

I sometimes wonder where Mike thinks he'd be without poles. When he was in high school, he flew all the way from his home in Long Beach to compete in the U.S. Junior Championships in Gainesville, Fla. Only the plane ran over his poles or something, because when they came out to the baggage claim area they were flat as pancakes. That was it for the U.S. Juniors.

It seems like the only time vaulters ever talk about their poles is when they complain about what a hassle we are. I'll admit that lugging a bundle of fiber glass tubes—world class vaulters use different poles for different heights; can you imagine me being used at 15 feet—from track meet to track meet takes a little patience. When you travel with me, you have to plan carefully, because I don't fit in DC-9s or any Eastern Airlines planes except the L1011. And Mike always has to have a lot of rope on hand to strap me to the top of taxis. Sometimes he almost has to use that rope to lasso a cabbie; those guys tend to disappear when they see us coming. You ought to hear the way all pole vaulters, not just Mike, carry on. They're always talking about inventing the collapsible pole.

Like most vaulters, Mike rarely has anything to do with me in practice. He lifts weights two or three times a week and occasionally does some gymnastics to help him develop control of himself in mid-air. But mostly his workouts resemble those of a sprinter; he does a lot of what he calls "flying 50s" and "flying 75s." "Pole vaulting is a sprinting event," Mike keeps telling people. "It's a matter of how much speed you get on the runway. The faster you run, the higher you jump." He also says that carrying a pole slows him down about 15%. Yeah, and not carrying a pole would lower his best jump about 18'5¼".

Sorry, sorry, I sometimes get carried away about my lack of recognition. You want to know more about Mike. He says he might like to get into acting when he's done vaulting. The only problem is that Hollywood has already done the role for which Tully was typecast and Robert Redford got the part. The character was Hubbell Gardiner in the movie The Way We Were.

Hubbell was the all-American college boy, an intelligent jock with California surfer good looks. He was even a track star. Hubbell's only problem was that "in a way things had always come too easily for him." The movie sort of broke down when it tried to show Hubbell in later life, when things were no longer coming easily. Mike would have as much trouble as Redford did summoning up the right emotions for that part of the role. As Tom Jennings, Mike's coach on the Pacific Coast Club, says, "Nothing bad ever happened to Tully. To him a tragedy is losing his poles." Things always seem to come easily for Mike.

To prove it, you don't have to look any further than his vaulting. He didn't even take the event seriously until he was a junior at Millikan High School in Long Beach. By the end of his senior year he was already the best high school vaulter in the nation, and that summer he tied the second-best high school vault ever with a jump of 16'8¾".

Up to that point Mike's only coaching had come from some vaulters he trained with—Steve Smith, Bob Richards Jr. and Casey Carrigan, who set the high school record of 17'4¾" in 1969. And no one would have accused Mike then, or now, of killing himself during workouts. His most revealing statement on training is, "I think rest is a very important thing."

Mike didn't get any real instruction until his freshman year at UCLA. The Bruin field events coach at the time was Tom Tellez, who is now the head track coach at the University of Houston. "Tellez taught me how to pole-vault," Mike often says. "I didn't know what I was doing. I just did it. With Tom I learned why to do things."

In his freshman year Mike added 13¼" to his personal best and set a world junior (19 and under) record of 17'10", which still stands. But it took him almost two more years to get over 18'. Mike always tells people that the 18' barrier meant nothing, that it was just a matter of time, but Bell says it was really hanging Mike up. I agree with Earl. Mike jumped 18' for the first time in an indoor meet in Toronto, and those of us who were near the pit that night heard him let out a yelp when he finally cleared it. But then he caught himself, reverted to character and went into his normal victory routine, which is to hold one finger tentatively up in the air. Earl says it makes Mike look like he's scratching his head more than celebrating.

Another thing that comes easily for Mike is winning at UCLA. In his entire college career he has lost only one dual meet. That happened during his freshman season, and on that day Mike had jumped as high as the other guy. He just had more misses.

Mike's real teammates have always been the members of the Pacific Coast Club, not Bruins. He got on the team back in high school, and now, though at 21 Mike is still the youngest member of the club, he is second in seniority to Francie Larrieu.

Mike is known to his PCC teammates as Mikey. That's after the kid in the cereal ad on TV. You know, "Let Mikey try it. He'll eat anything." Mike doesn't eat food. He inhales it. Tully likes the nickname. He has even taken to signing his autograph "Mikey Tully."

But don't get the idea that Mike doesn't like college. He loves it. He'll tell you, "I wish I could stay in college all my life. I'm having such a good time."

When you think about it, who wouldn't want to spend his life in college if he could do it the way Mike is? His athletic scholarship contains an allowance for room and board. On winter weekends when his roommates head off for greater downtown Westwood, Mike goes to places like New York and Toronto to compete before thousands of people. And in the summer, instead of working construction to earn pocket money, he hopscotches around Europe with the PCC. Mike's parents, both schoolteachers, have never been overseas, but Mike has spent four full summers touring 15 European countries.

As for the days he spends on UCLA's campus, well let's just say being a college senior is another thing that comes easily for Tully. He has invented a new twist on that old line about your buddy's girlfriend's roommate—you know, "She can cook and play the guitar and all the girls love her." Well, Tully plays the guitar, and his roommates call him Betty Crocker because he likes to bake cakes, although that seems to be the limit of his culinary skills. And all the girls do love him.

Tully's strenuous daily routine includes a class or two (just to get the few hours left to meet the qualifications for a diploma), some Frisbee, a workout and the pursuit of meaningless relationships. The high point is a visit to the West-world Electronic Amusement Center. If practice makes perfect, Tully has a future as a pinball wizard.

And then there are the turtle races. Every Thursday night Mike and his three roommates enter their turtle, Son of a Beach, in races at a local watering hole named Brennan's Pub. Once a year there is a big runoff at Santa Anita, where the purse is $500. That's one reason that Tully and friends keep the turtle. The other is the fact that a lot of girls come out to watch the races. Unfortunately, Son of a Beach hasn't been holding up his end of the bargain. Most of the time he just tucks his head inside his shell and squats on the starting line, pretending to be a rock. Maybe he's embarrassed about his name. The big winner lately has been Whips 'N Chains.

And annually, or thereabouts, there is a good old-fashioned college prank. About this time a year ago there was a big stir on the UCLA campus when someone hung a six-foot blue shark from a tree limb over Bruin Walk. The prankster was never caught, but I have my suspicions. Consider these facts: Mike has a book on sharks; the weekend before the shark was treed Mike went fishing way out in the Pacific; even though Mike loves his sleep, the night before the shark was discovered his bed was hardly slept in; and although he goes to the campus only when absolutely necessary, Mike ambled down Bruin Walk that morning for no apparent reason. As I said, I have my suspicions.

And you better listen to me, because you won't learn anything about that shark or much else by talking to Mike. Not that Mike's stupid, mind you. Far from it. He's going to graduate next December with a degree in psychology that he got without benefit of tutors or courses in beach blanket bingo. It's just that he's an introvert. In fact he's about the quietest athlete on the track circuit. His PCC teammates are always needling him, saying, "Mikey, you're just another pretty face." I told you Mike wants to get into films. Well, as far as I'm concerned, his chances of making it in the movies went out when talkies came in.

Even when Mike does talk, it's difficult to pin him down. Ask him about the future and he says things like, "I want to find something as exciting as jumping, most likely a job." Mike just lives day to day, and that's why he's continually doing things that surprise even the people who know him best. In the past year, for instance, he's tried hang gliding, parachuting and sky diving, but he hasn't made a regular practice of any of them. As his father says, "Mike's just diddling around."

And he'll keep on diddling for a few more years. In that time Mike plans to get a stockbroker's license, a real-estate license, a pilot's license and set up a lot of other options for the future. But mostly he plans to jump. He still has some goals in vaulting. He'd like to hold all the world records, which means he has to set the outdoor record to go along with his junior and indoor marks. He'd also like to win a gold medal in Moscow.

As for me, the greatest pole in the history of vaulting, I might go anytime. Poles break, you know. And they get run over by airplanes. If you're so set on doing an article on pole vaulting, you better write about me and do it fast. Mike is going to be around for a while.

PHOTORICH CLARKSONThere's Mike hanging on while I do the work, but I like the picture because my name shows for once. PHOTORICH CLARKSONThe turtle is a loser, but Mike treats it like a king—while I'm left alone in an equipment room. PHOTORICH CLARKSONMike generally watches out for me, but airports and taxis can put a strain on our relationship.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)