For a chilling moment at last Friday night's Toronto Star Maple Leaf Games, both Billy Olson and the pole vault crossbar were descending from 19 feet, destined for either the edge of the vaulting pad—or the bare, spike-chewed plywood of the sprint runway just beyond it. No one was sure where Olson would land, though he himself was thinking wood. "I was scared to death," Olson said later. "I figured, two broken legs."
Olson, who was making his first attempt at a world indoor record of 19'¼", had propelled himself to a tremendous height—five or six inches above what he needed to become history's first 19-foot indoor vaulter—but had also veered dangerously to the right. In his eagerness to clear 19, he had used his stiffest pole and charged down the runway so furiously that fellow vaulter Earl Bell later described the effort as "suicidal." As 11,500 fans in Maple Leaf Gardens sat transfixed, Olson acted out of self-preservation. He aborted his jump, coming down squarely on the crossbar and using body English to keep as much of himself over the landing pad as possible. He caught the last two feet of cushion. After a moment, Olson stood up, shaken.
"I could have killed myself," he told Bell and Pacific Coast Club Coach Tom Jennings, who were sitting near the vault runway. "It's a long way down from up there." Indeed, only Thierry Vigneron of France and Vladimir Polyakov of the Soviet Union had ever cleared 19 feet or higher officially, both having done so outdoors in June of 1981. Olson's best had been his indoor world record of 18'10¾", set two weeks earlier in Los Angeles.
"Next time try staying on the pad," said Jennings.
February 14, 1983
"Aim for the middle," advised Bell.
"It's not funny," said Olson, whose career was nearly ended in 1980 when he missed the pad and shattered his left wrist. "But what do you think?" he asked. "Should I switch back to the 15.2 [a more flexible pole] this time?"
"I think you should establish sanity and mental health this time," answered Bell.
Olson, 24, from Abilene, Texas, had calmly predicted that he would crack 19 feet in Toronto, where last winter he'd set the first of his six indoor world records. "The Canadian fans sound just like Texans," he said. "This must be what they call North Texas, the Canadian Panhandle." Olson loves almost everything about Canada, right down to the domestic brew. "Molson," he says. "That's a mighty great beer because it has my name in it." But most important to Olson in targeting Toronto for his special try at 19 feet was the deceivingly quick runway in Maple Leaf Gardens. To the casual eye it's nothing more than plywood covered by a narrow course of brown rubber; to Olson it's the best indoor runup anywhere. He had so much confidence in it that on Friday he didn't enter the competition until 18'4¼", and after clearing that height on his second attempt to win the meet, he immediately decided to go for 19'¼". "You dummy," Jennings shouted, preferring that Olson attempt an intermediate height first. But Olson didn't want to waste his energy. "You want to come out here and try it?" he asked.
It was exactly 10:16 p.m. when Olson went to the head of the runway, lifted his pole—the more flexible model he'd used on his first two jumps—and began his 145-foot run toward the standards for a second crack at the record. Olson has been clocked by radar gun at 8.8 meters per second during his approach, a record among vaulters, but according to Bell, "This was the best run I've ever seen. By him or anyone. It was lo-co-motion."
It was also breathtaking. Olson, who has recently strengthened his upper body by lifting dumbbells, planted cleanly, drove powerfully into the pole, rose and arced smoothly over the bar, barely touching it on top with his chest. As Olson hit the pit, the bar quavered gently. It didn't fall.
"He screamed it," declared high jumper Milt Ottey.
"A Pacific Coast Club record," added Jennings.
Olson, meanwhile, remained on his back. "I tried to stand up, but I got a case of jelly legs," he said later. The 19-foot vault was a goal he'd pursued for years. As long ago as 1979, when he was a mere 18'½" vaulter, he'd put vanity plates on his Olds Cutlass that read: 19 FEET. "When I first saw them I asked Billy what he was doing driving Vigneron's car," recalls Jennings. But that was before Olson really got into the driver's seat. His record on Friday, for instance, gave him the seven best indoor marks of all time and put him five inches ahead of any other American vaulter ever indoors. And it gave him yet more confidence. "I'm going to beat this tomorrow in Dallas," he vowed. "Watch me."
For most of Saturday night's Dallas Times Herald Invitational, however, Olson was doing the watching. Because television cameras were located in the vaulting area during the sprints, the pole vault was postponed until late in the evening, a change Olson didn't learn of until he reached Reunion Arena, some three hours before his first jump. "They want Olson to break a world record here, but they go and mess him up just for TV," grumbled Jennings.
While Olson was in the stands visiting with some of the 46 people he had invited to the meet—family, friends and ninth-graders from the weekly Bible study group he and his girl friend direct—another athlete who's unafraid to challenge his events' historic barriers took to the track. Carl Lewis, the world's preeminent long jumper and its fastest 100-meter man, has already come within 5½ inches of Bob Beamon's awesome 29'2½" long jump in the 1968 Olympics and closed within .05 of a second of Jim Hines's 9.95 100 in the same Games. Here he was entered in the 60-yard dash, though there seemed little likelihood that he would break Stanley Floyd's world record of 6.04 seconds. "Everybody always says I'm too tall to run the short indoor sprints," the 6'2" Lewis would say later. "I just wanted to prove them wrong."
To win a dash at the Times Herald meet without setting a record is difficult; before Saturday, the 3-year-old meet had produced seven world sprint and hurdle marks. And so it was not surprising that Lewis, who hadn't entered a sprint since last summer, won his heat in an outstanding 6.13 despite a terrible start. "I've gotten used to the European starters, who are very slow," he said. "Here the starter didn't hold the gun long at all, and I was left sitting there."
Though his poor start had him feeling "a little shell-blasted," Lewis came out as if fired from a gun in the 60 final. He ran down Bruce Davis, a wide receiver for Baylor, and held off Herschel Walker, a sometimes running back for Georgia, to win by a full stride. He was clocked in 6.02, .10 faster than second-place Walker and .02 under Floyd's world record.
"It's been two years since I ran a decent 60," said Lewis, who blazed a lap of the 176-yard track when his time was announced. "I've always wanted the 60 record. That and the 100." Though not necessarily in that order.
"I was supposed to go compete in The Superstars this weekend, but I decided to concentrate on this meet instead," he said, obviously glad he had. However, he had been practicing his golf, bowling and swimming in anticipation of his ABC appearance. "This year I'm going to diversify myself," he said. "The reason is that the sprints and long jump get boring." He spoke of running more 200s and 400s and even trying triple jumping. "If the time situation works out, I will," he said. "I used to do it casually in high school."
Lewis' versatility is apparently limitless, except that he can't play basketball. "I can't put a ball in the ocean," he says. Lewis is even an Esquire Man; he will appear in formal attire on the cover of an upcoming issue. "It's really funny. It turns out that the guy who did the story on me for them was actually my freshman-year, first-semester English teacher," says Lewis, now a senior at the University of Houston. When he is asked how he did in the course, Lewis just smiles and says, "That's O.K."
Olson was looking anything but O.K. when he took his first vault, at 18'4½". He was struggling so much that he needed three vaults to clear that height. He required three more jumps to make 18'8¼", a respectable height when you consider that no other person has ever vaulted higher indoors.
Olson took his last three vaults with the bar at 19'¾", the same height as Polyakov's outdoor record. Weary from five hours of mostly sitting around, he nevertheless followed the Second Principle of Vaulting, as taught to him by Don Hood, his coach at Abilene Christian: "You can't win a horse race by yelling whoa." (First Principle: Run fast, hold high and carry a big pole.) And Olson's second and third tries at 19'¾" were tantalizingly close, a sign that a major leap forward in the outdoor world record may not be too far off.
"Billy could go 20," says Hood. "He's got all the tools." All Olson needs, perhaps, are the proper license plates.