Alone, or in the company of close friends, Dan Ripley will sit and monotonously rock. Endlessly. Back and forth. Ripley, although extroverted and spontaneous, is self-conscious about this habit. In public he will substitute a less conspicuous foot wiggling. "When I was younger, I had visions of eventually stopping so I wouldn't look retarded," he confesses. "But after I got married and kept rocking, I resigned myself to it."
Perhaps his rocking is just a restlessness to be airborne again. After all, he has spent much of his life yanking himself off the ground at the end of a 16'5" pole. Ripley, who is 25 and has lived all his life in the environs of Los Angeles, holds the world indoor pole-vault record of 18'5½", a mark he set March 3 in Fort Worth during a dual meet between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.
Earl Bell, a fellow vaulter and former Pacific Coast Club teammate, offers a more esoteric explanation for Ripley's rocking. He ascribes to Ripley a condition common in apes raised in captivity. Presumably, because they had no mothers to rock them, these apes spend their adult lives rocking themselves. Ripley dismisses his rocking as a way to expend excess energy. His parents have told him that as a baby he used to rock his crib all the way across the floor and block the door to his bedroom.
In any event, Ripley's rocking is symbolic of his career, which has kept swinging from one extreme to the other. There has never been an in-between. For example, Ripley won this year's national AAU indoor title with a meet-record vault of 18'1" and last year's outdoor with a meet record of 18'3". At last year's indoor championship, on the other hand, he "no-heighted"—vaulting lingo for failing to clear an opening height in the three prescribed attempts.
June 3, 1979
Including his high school days, Ripley has now competed in 22 meets that decided league, conference, city, state, regional or national championships. He has won 11 of these and finished second in five others, a total of 16 "golds and silvers," as he calls them. In the other six championships he no-heighted. And in all but one of those he no-heighted in the qualifying round. In the lone exception, there was no qualifying round.
The outdoor and indoor track seasons have produced another contrast in Ripley's career. Indoors he has unquestionably been the best vaulter in the world for the past five years. During that time he has set five world records. Outdoors Ripley has never set a world record. In large measure, injuries account for these erratic results. Before his last two years at San Jose State, Ripley had never pulled a muscle, yet pulled muscles have plagued his career ever since. His left hamstring and groin muscles have been particularly susceptible. He has pulled each seven times in the last five years. Asked if he is pointing for the 1980 Olympics, Ripley says, fatalistically, "With my injury situation, I never plan beyond the next meet."
Right now, even that's difficult. On May 1, during a photo session to help promote next week's Brooks Invitational meet at Berkeley, Calif., Ripley missed the landing pit on a vault. He fell on his right wrist and elbow, bruising both and spraining his shoulder. Ripley had to cancel out of the UCLA-Pepsi Invitational on May 6. Now he hopes to be ready for the Brooks meet and is sure—as sure as he ever is—that he will be at Mt. San Antonio College the following week to defend his AAU outdoor title. If the past is indeed prologue, perhaps this injury is a favorable harbinger for the coming outdoor season.
Understandably, Ripley has a some what ambivalent relationship with his event. "I love the pole vault," he will say. Then, pointing to the fiber-glass poles stacked by a wall in his Norwalk, Calif. condominium, he says, "Anybody who would carry around these things has to love it.
"Pole vaulting combines a lot of techniques and you use most parts of your body. The pole vault is a sprint, a long jump, a gymnastics event and a circus daredevil act all in one. You're 18 feet in the air upside down. There's a certain amount of risk that adds a dimension other events in track and field don't offer. It's like jumping out of a plane with a parachute, or hang gliding."
But keep Ripley talking long enough and he will work himself around to the point where he will blurt out, "I'll tell you why I hate the pole vault. You can make a perfect jump and still miss because you chose a pole that was either too stiff or too light. In other events you control your destiny with your effort, but not in the vault. It's the most frustrating event in track."
There are paradoxes in other aspects of Ripley's vaulting. His normal method of getting up for meets is to get down on his chances. During the 1976 indoor season, when he set three world records and should have been ecstatic, he was suffering through what he now calls "the most miserable year of my life."
Undoubtedly the most dramatic example of the fluctuations in Ripley's career is also the most dramatic moment in that career. On the night of Jan. 18, 1975, at the Sunkist Invitational in the Los Angeles Sports Arena, Ripley vaulted 18'1" to rocket from the ranks of the unknown to the lofty status of world-record holder. To understand the astonishment that greeted Ripley's leap, you need to know that 18'1" was five inches higher than he had ever vaulted before, and that in his last previous U.S. appearance, on June 6, at the NCAA championships, he had no-heighted at 15'6". Moreover, he made his record jump with an injured left shoulder, which then sidelined him for the remainder of the 1975 indoor season. But his record remained unbroken. There it was, a seeming aberration, its accomplisher unable to prove it wasn't a magnificent fluke. No wonder a common refrain in those days was, "Ripley, believe it or not."
Even now track-and-field people stand in bewildered awe of Ripley's improvement between June 1974 and January 1975. Ripley admits he is among the stunned. After all, he wasn't a late starter making rapid strides; he had toiled at his event for years. Ripley started vaulting at age nine when his father, a civil engineer for the California State Department of Transportation, dug a pit in the backyard of the Ripleys' home in Anaheim and set up two standards. Even before that, Ripley had experienced the daredevil phase of the event by practicing hanging by a single heel from the top of a swing set. Once, while showing off in this manner for his two sisters, his ankle slipped and he fell on his head, which "probably explains why I became a pole vaulter," he says.
There's a lot more to it than that. As he grew, Ripley began to view vaulting as a means to an end—that being a free college education. By jumping 16 feet in junior college he did earn an athletic scholarship for his final two years at San Jose State. The summer before entering San Jose, Ripley got married. He planned to get a degree in physical education and spend an extra year earning a teaching credential before settling down as a high school coach and starting a family. Then, after his vaulting had achieved its main purpose, his athletic career appeared to be winding down. Ripley made just three inches improvement, to 16'3", in his junior year, which he closed out with his no-height performance at the NCAAs. It hardly seemed likely that when he next appeared on a runway in the U.S. he would set a world record.
What elevated Ripley was a summer of hard workouts and an almost religious devotion to the teachings of a book, Mechanics of the Pole Vault, by Dr. R. V. Ganslen, a national and collegiate pole vault champion in the 1930s, which he got through the mail for $2.50. He worked out four evenings a week. His sessions were devoted solely to vaulting, which is unusual. Normally a pole vaulter's workouts will consist of running, lifting weights and performing stretching exercises and gymnastics. Ripley rarely vaults in workouts now, but in 1974 he made 25 jumps a session.
Except for an occasional jogger, Ripley and his wife were usually alone on the infield at the San Jose State track. Each night he would follow Ganslen's instructions on one phase of the vault—either the approach, the plant or the positioning of the body in the air. To make sure he concentrated on technique rather than height, Ripley used a lighter-than-usual pole, which he gripped well down on the shaft from where he would normally hold it. He also shortened his approach to 84 feet instead of the 115 feet he employed in meets. This condensing of the elements of the vault forced Ripley to place the bar well below the heights at which he had customarily practiced.
As a result of this devotion to basics, Ripley now excels at the one phase of the event most vaulters never fully master. When vaulting coaches say, "Attack the box," they mean keep on accelerating through the plant, that moment when the vaulter rams his pole into the back of the box. "There's a natural fear of running full speed and jamming a pole into a wall," says Earl Bell. "It's like grabbing a low bridge at top speed. It seems like it could yank your arms out.
"What really sets Dan apart from other vaulters is how aggressive he is when he plants," says Bell. "All you have to do is see the expression on his face and you know what it is to attack the box."
As Ripley went about perfecting his technique in the summer of 1974 he was gradually able to move the bar upward even though he never varied from using his light pole, low grip and short approach. In July he cleared 16'3", matching the best he had ever done in competition, then 16'6" and 16'9". A sore back forced him to rest for several weeks, but on the day he began working out again he jumped 17 feet.
Two weeks later, in early September, he vaulted 17 feet again, and this time his curiosity got the best of him. He grabbed a stiffer pole, repositioned his grip and backed up to 98 feet. Even though he mistimed his takeoff, Ripley sailed easily over the bar. He raised it to 17'3" and made that on his first attempt. Up went the bar once more, to 17'6". Another clean jump on the first try.
"When I landed in the pit, I went crazy," Ripley says. "Just my wife and I were there, but I started jumping around like I had won the Olympics. I had been hoping to turn myself into a consistent 16'6" jumper and had dreamed of clearing 17 feet. The year before, the best amateur indoor vault in the world had been 17'8". My jump that night had put me right up there with the world-class vaulters." Ripley pauses, savoring the revelations of that September evening. Then quietly, as if it had just happened, he says, "Wow!"
From then on it was just a matter of Ripley's biding his time. Late in December, Ernie Bullard, his coach at San Jose, wangled him an invitation to an indoor meet in Saskatoon. Ripley had never attempted to jump higher than his 17'6" practice vault, but in Saskatoon he won with a Canadian record of 17'8". That height also topped the San Jose State record of 17'7". Ripley had primed himself for that mark by choosing locker No. 177 at school.
When Ripley arrived at the Sunkist meet three weeks later, only a few other athletes—and even fewer spectators—had heard of his performance in Canada. Those who had were skeptical. But Ripley easily won the Sunkist at 17'6" and Bullard encouraged him to keep going and try to break Steve Smith's world amateur record of 18'¼" (Smith, after turning pro, had vaulted 18'2½"). "The bar was at 18'1", which was five inches higher than I'd ever attempted," Ripley says. "I didn't think I had a chance, so I was relaxed. On my first try I barely ticked the bar off. I couldn't believe it. I said to myself, 'Hey, I think I can make that.' " On the third attempt he did. Dan Ripley, believe it or not, had become the indoor world-record holder.
The only other time Ripley cleared 18 feet in 1975 was at the NCAA championships, the meet at which he had no-heighted at 15'6" a year earlier. This time he set a meet record of 18'1", but finished second to Bell because he had had more misses. But Ripley didn't even bother to compete in the AAU championships a week later. "Mentally, I was still not a track person," he says. "I thought of myself as a 16'3" vaulter."
He became a track person soon after, but only as a sort of defense mechanism against loneliness. In the fall of 1975 Ripley's marriage broke up. He stopped work on his teaching credential and moved back in with his parents in Anaheim. "I didn't have a job, I didn't have any plans, I didn't even know what to do with myself," he says. Eventually Ripley called Tom Jennings, the coach of the Pacific Coast Club. Jennings invited Ripley to his home in Cerritos, Calif. that same night, and Ripley became a member of the PCC. "Dan was really a basket case," says Jennings. "He thought his life was a failure. I remember he sat in a rocking chair...he should always sit in a rocking chair."
Ripley opened the 1976 indoor season back at Saskatoon and would have set a world record of 18'1¼" there, but he started celebrating too soon and knocked the bar off with his trailing arm on the way down. He did set a new mark the following week at College Park, Md. with a jump of 18'1¼" and then appeared to break that seven days later in Albuquerque. However, after taking a victory lap to a standing ovation, he was told that the bar had been remeasured and it had been set at only 18'1". No matter. The next week he vaulted 18'2½" in Los Angeles. Two Polish vaulters, Tadeusz Slusarski and Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz, temporarily seized the world record with jumps of 18'3" and 18'3½" respectively, but Ripley got it back in the final week of the '76 season. With his right arm, the one he pushes off with, beet-red and swollen from a smallpox vaccination, Ripley jumped 18'3¾" at the U.S. Olympic Invitational in Madison Square Garden on Feb. 20.
It had been the kind of indoor season track and field athletes dream of—but for Ripley it had been a nightmare. "On trips with the team, one part of me said, 'I want to have fun,' so sometimes I'd be very outgoing. But I was so upset about my marriage that more often I'd withdraw and be a loner. I was one extreme or the other, back and forth, either totally frenetic or totally withdrawn. My teammates probably thought I was weird. I probably was."
Another Ripley trait surfaced that year. "I would go to meets," he says, "and feel so bad I wasn't sure I could jump." Yet he kept setting world records. These days when Ripley is listing the various reasons why he'll probably no-height in a meet, Jennings is quick to assure the meet promoter, "It's just that Dan's way to be positive is to be negative."
Ripley's depression deepened when the 1976 outdoor season got under way and he no-heighted in the qualifying round of the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. The day had been one of those typically frustrating occasions that often make Ripley wish he had picked an event that doesn't depend so much on equipment. Ripley had been unsure what pole to use, because he had just returned from a four-week layoff caused by a pulled left hamstring. Compounding his uncertainty was the fact that he had been dieting to reach his vaulting weight of 180. He has jumped with as much as 198 pounds on his 6-foot frame, which is why his PCC teammates still occasionally call him "the fat squirrel."
The first pole Ripley chose for the opening height of 17 feet in Eugene proved to be too light. It flexed too much and carried him into the bar on the way up. He changed to a stiffer pole for his next attempt. This time he got more than enough height, but the pole was so stiff he didn't penetrate far enough toward the pit and came down on top of the bar. That left Ripley in a desperate quandary. He had no in-between pole for his final attempt. He chose the stiffer pole. It was the wrong choice. "As soon as I left the ground, I knew I wasn't going to the Olympics," he says. "I wanted to quit vaulting right there. I was totally disillusioned with myself. There had been a time when the two biggest things in my life were my marriage and the Olympics. Now I had failed at both."
Given the seesaw nature of Ripley's career, it should come as no surprise that as he gradually put his personal life back in order, his pole vaulting came apart even more. While he was sidelined by another hamstring pull in the winter of 1977, Ripley had met Jennings' secretary, Denise Dawson. On their first date they went to the Los Angeles Times indoor meet, both as spectators. They were married this past St. Patrick's Day. "I wanted to have our wedding on a holiday," says Denise. "That way when everyone gets the green out and McDonald's starts serving Shamrock Shakes he'll know there's something he's supposed to remember." She is only half kidding. Ripley once gave Denise a birthday gift on his ex-wife's birthday.
Injury may have played the role of matchmaker in Ripley's personal life but it also came close to putting an end to his vaulting career. After the Trials, Ripley was sidelined more and more frequently and he didn't clear 18 feet again in 1976. The next year he was able to surpass that height only once. At the start of the 1978 indoor season, Ripley decided to treat his chronic injury problems by easing into the competition instead of going all-out from the start. He no-heighted in his opening meet, the Muhammad Ali Invitational, then watched as Mike Tully broke his world record with a vault of 18'4".
A few weeks later he returned to the Sunkist Invitational, where he had set his first world record, and cleared only 16'6". Ripley's career had hit rock bottom. The night of the Sunkist meet he flew with PCC teammate Francie Larrieu to the Bahamas where she was going to compete in a Superstars competition. "It was the lowest I've ever seen Dan," she says. "He didn't speak the whole trip. He just rocked back and forth and shook his head from side to side the entire way. Hey, that's not easy. It takes a lot of coordination."
In the Bahamas, Ripley resolved that injuries or no he had to push himself to the limit. Just as his career had abruptly declined, so it now suddenly reversed itself. Two weeks later he vaulted 18 feet in Toronto and almost regained his indoor record on a subsequent jump. Outdoors last year he won his first AAU title and cleared 18 feet for the first time in Europe in a meet in Athens. Even after a groin pull cut short his outdoor campaign, Ripley was full of confidence. He couldn't wait for this year's indoor season to regain his world record.
Ripley was soaring again. In his case, of course, that is a harbinger of a nose dive. At his first indoor meet he pulled his left hamstring. Again he gave serious consideration to retirement. "I couldn't be healthy enough to compete in any meets," he says. "Counting my last performance in Europe the previous summer, I had suffered injuries to two different muscles in back-to-back meets."
Ripley returned to the indoor circuit four weeks later, confident he was on the verge of a world record but also determined to call it quits if he suffered another injury. He didn't. In an amazing display of consistency he cleared 18 feet on each of the five remaining weekends of the indoor season. Yet the world record, which Tully had upped to 18'5¼" at the 1978 NCAA indoor championships, eluded him. And it did so cruelly. On Feb. 3 in Edmonton, Ripley had cleared 18'5¾", but the vault was disallowed because the standards holding the bar were not regulation. All told, by the time Ripley arrived in Fort Worth for the indoor season's final meet, he had made 15 attempts at a new world mark.
Before the meet he ate dinner with Larrieu. Throughout the meal he groaned about how horrible he felt and vainly tried to convince her that he was likely to no-height. She told him he sounded like he was about to make his best jump ever. Then on the way to the meet he was stopped and wished good luck by a distinguished-looking gentleman who introduced himself as Dr. R. V. Ganslen. That night Ripley cleared 18'5½" to regain the world record.
In the wee hours of the following morning, Ripley knocked on the hotel door of a writer who was covering the meet. With Ripley was Vladimir Trofimyenko, the Soviet vaulter who was ranked No. 1 in the world last year but who this night had performed in a manner that Ripley could easily relate to. Trofimyenko had no-heighted. The Soviet vaulter was carrying the dregs of a bottle of Russian vodka, most of which he had obviously emptied into himself. Trofimyenko quickly poured a hotel bathroom glass full for the writer, who just as quickly refused it. Trofimyenko looked offended. Ripley tried to intercede. "He works," said Ripley slowly to his fellow vaulter. "See typewriter. He must write story. Work." Trofimyenko surveyed the typewriter and its owner, pondered the situation, then muttered, "Capitalist."
Eventually, the Russian wandered off in search of livelier company. Ripley remained in the hotel room, seated on the edge of the bed, chattering nonstop. He talked about how he was looking toward the upcoming outdoor season and about the outdoor record of 18'8¼" that Dave Roberts set at the Olympic Trials almost three years before. Ripley would like to erase that mark as surely as he would like to erase the memory of his failure that day.
"Despite all the attention I've received for my indoor vaulting, the fact is that in every year of my career I've jumped as high or higher outdoors than indoors," he said. "I've got a good shot at Roberts' record now, barring injury. Of course, with me that's a big bar." A quick smile flashed. Then slowly Ripley's expression went blank and his eyes focused somewhere outside of the hotel room. Perhaps he was envisioning himself under an open sky arcing gracefully across the bar at world-record height. Or perhaps he was stilled by the realization that for right now every aspect of his life seemed in harmony. In the early morning quiet, Dan Ripley sat intensely motionless.