Late Sunday afternoon, as the three-day USA/Mobil Outdoor Track & Field Championships were drawing to a close in Knoxville, Tenn., pole vaulter Dan Ripley looked around him and felt exhilarated. With the crossbar set at 18'5¼", eight competitors remained, himself included. Eight. "People were just flying over that bar," said Ripley later. "Killing it. I had a feeling it was going to take more than 18'5" to win. I had a feeling maybe an American record. Maybe even a world record."
Until Ripley and friends hooked up in their dramatic vaulting competition, the meet had produced feelings of anything but exhilaration. Something more akin to facing up to a sultry summer afternoon on an obstacle course with full field packs. The athletes had discovered the unique sensation of running on the University of Tennessee's track: a balanced-budget special whereon the homestretch, recently resurfaced with Sportan, is coarse-textured and spongy, and the backstretch is 3-year-old Tartan, hard and bald like an old tire. Runners liked the old tire but not the sponge, and the fans were disappointed as a number of entrants withdrew. Among them were world-record holder Edwin Moses in the 400 hurdles, Don Paige in the 800, sprinter Stanley Floyd, 110-hurdler Greg Foster and Alberto Salazar in the 10,000.
Still, the women fared well, with Evelyn Ashford turning in arguably the best U.S. performance ever in the 100 and Stephanie Hightower equaling Deby LaPlante's American record of 12.86 in the 100 hurdles. Mary Decker Tabb came within 3.94 seconds of her U.S. 1,500 record in winning her first national outdoor title since she was 15, eight years and a soap-opera script full of calamitous injuries ago. High school senior Denean Howard of Granada Hills, Calif., all of 17, won the women's 400 in 50.87, the second-fastest American in history. And 18-year-old long jumper Carol Lewis became the No. 2 U.S. performer in that event with her 22'4½" leap, second only to Jodi Anderson's American record of 22'11¾".
But it was Carol's 20-year-old brother Carl who truly focused international attention on the meet. For the second year in a row he won both the 100-meter dash (10.11) and the long jump (27'10"), a double double unique in this century. "I wouldn't have been beaten by anybody in world history this weekend in any race," said Lewis, a junior at Houston.
Lewis, who lost his NCAA eligibility for academic reasons in January, announced he would remain in school but not participate in collegiate meets, citing the fact that the semester off had allowed him to bring his grade-point average up to 3.0 while his more limited participation in open meets certainly hadn't endangered his No. 1 world ranking in either the long jump or the 100. He felt that he would have leaped 28 feet and broken the world 100 record of 9.95 were it not for the track's slow sprint surface (the new, spongy section) and stiff headwinds. Few who saw Lewis compete doubted him.
In contrast to the big-name men who didn't deign to run, Ashford wasn't expected to be in Knoxville, yet there she was on Saturday evening, winning the women's 100. Ashford had said she wouldn't run outdoors this year, that she needed a complete rest before starting training for the 1984 Olympics. But in March she had run in an outdoor meet in San Diego and won a 10.97 100. "I didn't train for about six weeks," Ashford says. "Then I decided I could get the world record [10.88] this year."
Ashford was out of the blocks quickly, just ahead of Jamaica's Merlene Ottey, but felt uncomfortable on the sprint runway. It wasn't only soft—Lewis and others found gummy pieces of the surface stuck to the bottom of their spikes after races—but also very bouncy. "By the end of the race I couldn't control myself," Ashford said. "I was too wobbly. I was fighting all the way."
At the tape Ashford had a yard on Ottey. Her winning time of 10.96—the fifth fastest ever—became more remarkable when it was determined she had run into a headwind of 1.3 meters per second (about 3 mph).
Ripley, now 28, set a world record—indoors, at 18'5½", in 1979—but going into this year he seemed to be on the downslide. Last season he had managed to clear 18 feet only once. Even during the '82 indoor season he couldn't keep up with Pacific Coast Club teammates Earl Bell and Billy Olson. In fact, Olson, a senior at Abilene Christian, had broken the American indoor record as many times as Ripley had cleared 18'(five), eventually raising the mark to 18'10". Early this spring, too, Olson was more impressive: at a meet in Brownwood, Texas he established a U.S. outdoor record of 18'8¾", adding half an inch to Dave Roberts' 1976 mark.
Ever since then, however, Ripley has been the hottest American vaulter; in six outdoor meets before TAC, Ripley had achieved three personal bests, the most recent, at a Wichita, Kans. meet, being 18'6¾". He credits much of his improvement to intensive weight training sessions last year. His upper-body strength shows: at 6' and 180 pounds, Ripley is two inches shorter but 20 pounds heavier than Olson.
The vaulters had soared way above the bar at the opening heights, but at 18'5¼" only Indiana sophomore Dave Volz cleared on his first attempt. Five of the eight remaining finalists missed all their tries. Ripley, after failing once, decided his pole was to blame and hauled out the biggest model he'd ever tried, a 200-pound-test pole, with which he sprung easily over the bar. Seeing that, Olson passed, saving himself for the next height, 18'9¼", which would be an American outdoor record.
On their opening attempts, Ripley and Volz clobbered the bar, while Olson barely touched it. In fact, the bar didn't wobble off the standards until Olson had landed on the pad.
With one deep breath Ripley, making his second try, hoisted his pole and began what obviously was his most powerful sprint of the afternoon. A soft tailwind encouraged him. None of the late-afternoon sunlight could have passed between Ripley and the crossbar, but he cleared. He stood on the pad and raised clenched fists before the crowd.
When Olson went over moments later—with room to spare—he made the same exultant gesture. "There was so much pressure," he recalled with relief. "Billy just tied my U.S. record is all," said Ripley with a grin. Volz, however, didn't, missing his final two attempts.
Ripley took three clumsy tries and Olson three respectable ones at 19'1", trying to break Vladimir Polyakov's world record of 19'¾"; not coincidentally, Olson had attempted 19 feet before and Ripley hadn't. "I really don't think I'm ready for that yet," Ripley said. "I'm so close it's not even funny," said Olson. Only one matter remained unsettled.
Because the two vaulters were tied in both misses and clearances, a jumpoff beginning with a fourth attempt at 19'1" was called to determine a winner. "Let's not," said the weary Olson. "Good idea," said Ripley, who was at least as weary. Thus the two PCC teammates will share both a national title and the national record.
"That was a tough little meet there," said Olson. Which is just what Ripley was about to say.