Billy's Back On Top Again

Billy Olson, a man very much on the rebound, vaulted 19'3½" at the Sunkist, reclaiming the indoor record for a second time this season
January 27, 1986

Billy Olson stood at the end of the pole vault runway in the Los Angeles Sports Arena last Friday night, checked his batteries and tried to generate a final charge. He had one attempt left to clear 19'3½". If he succeeded, he would claim an unprecedented ninth world indoor record. "I was a little discouraged after my second jump," Olson said. "That was a tired jump. By the time I got down to the box, I was running on my kneecaps."

No matter what happened when Olson took off down the runway this time, the 12,600 fans at the Sunkist Invitational had already gotten an eyeful. In the meet's first event, Greg Foster had sailed across the 50-yard hurdles in world-record time. Johnny Gray, as he had promised that morning in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, had broken his own world indoor record in the 880 yards. And Charlie Simpkins, whose claim to fame was that he had been on the same Aiken High (S.C.) track and field team as Refrigerator Perry, had set an indoor mark in the triple jump.

Last week's record binge actually began two days earlier when Soviet vaulter Sergei Bubka cleared 19'3" at a meet in Osaka, Japan to top Olson's 2½-week-old world indoor mark by a quarter inch.

Your move, Mr. Olson.

Greg Woepse, an old friend, watched intently as Olson performed his distinctive pole-rocking ritual at the head of the run in for his last leap of the evening. An 18-foot vaulter himself, Woepse said, "I don't know if he's going to do it. He looks tired to me."

Then Olson took off down the runway, planted his yellow pole in the box with a clean chunk and arched upward. His hips cleared the bar by two or three inches, but he brushed it with his right thigh on the way down. Lying on his back in the pit, Olson could only watch as the bar shook and rattled, but didn't roll. He had his ninth indoor world record, the crowd, its fourth of the evening.

As the fans stood and roared, Olson started a victory lap, but he ran out of gas halfway into it. "Shows what kind of shape I'm in," he joked later. At least Olson can joke; life is great again. Olson had been the top-ranked vaulter in the world in 1982 and the Indoor Athlete of the Year in both 1982 and '83. But he was a bust at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1984, where he finished seventh. There was little consolation for him when, after the trials, doctors discovered that he had three stress fractures in his left foot, his takeoff foot. If anything, the 1985 season was even worse as he was plagued by a series of muscle pulls. It got so bad that Olson had to beg his way into at least one meet.

"The last two years have been solid taxis," Olson says. "The two years before that were solid limos."

In December Olson invited himself to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan for a warmup meet for the indoor season. He felt fit for the first time in nearly two years and had been training hard. There he jumped 19'2¾" to break Thierry Vigneron's world indoor mark by half an inch.

"I about had a heart attack when they said Billy Olson had set a world record," says Joe Dial, the U.S. record holder outdoors (19'2¼"). "At the Texas Relays last year Billy was so slow, so weak, I thought he'd never vault again."

Instead, he clearly has vaulted right back to the top. Dial was in the field at Osaka when Bubka cleared 19'3". The big Soviet pulled him aside and said, "Joe, little present for Billy Olson."

In truth, Bubka deserves much of the credit for inspiring Olson's return to form. Last July in Paris, Olson watched in awe as Bubka cleared 19'8¼", 3½" higher than anyone else had ever vaulted. "I remember thinking, 'You can't do this; he's put this out of reach,' " Olson says.

Olson knew then that he had to get a new grip on himself and his pole. For five years Olson had held his pole 15'10" up. Bubka held his at 16'10". "I could spot him a little height on the pole, but not a foot," Olson says. To use such a high grip, a vaulter has to have tremendous upper-body strength in order to control the pole for a clean plant. And to exceed 19 feet a vaulter also has to have great speed, which Olson does, having run the 100 meters in 10.64. But, no matter how strong and fast one is, the danger, difficulty and fear increase exponentially as one raises his grip. "We're pushing ourselves closer to the edge," Olson says. Olson held the pole at 16'5" on both of his recent record jumps.

Olson has learned that you're only as good as your last meet, so he plans to make the most of the current indoor season and carefully pace himself outdoors. He says that at 27, he has endured too much wear and tear to subject himself to nine straight months of nonstop travel and competition.

At times on Friday it seemed the Sunkist had more good comebacks than a Friars' roast. But there were also some promising new faces. There was Gray, who has eight of the best 10 U.S. times ever in the 800 meters outdoors, leading all the way to win the 880 in 1:46.8. There was Marcus O'Sullivan holding off a ferocious last-lap charge to beat Eamonn Coghlan in a 3:58.37 mile. It was Coghlan's first loss indoors at that distance in five years. Finally, there was Simpkins, who's a junior at Baptist College in Charleston, S.C.

On Friday Simpkins grabbed an early lead with a triple of 55'1½"', but by the final round he had fallen behind Olympic silver medalist Mike Conley, who had gone 56'6". To get his juices flowing, Simpkins popped on his Walkman and listened to Doughy Fresh rappin' Ladi Dadi. Then Simpkins popped his 57'5" jump. Oh, ladi.

But this meet belonged to the "old" men. And Foster, 27, now believes you've got to rest the body as much as possible. Foster missed much of last season because of an injury and a family tragedy. "Some people are team players," Foster says, "but I'm a family player." His mother, Izola, was his biggest fan. And, he says, "she knew the hurdles better than most hurdlers do." But last June, while Foster was in California, his mother and an aunt, a cousin, a nephew and a close family friend were killed in a car accident near Chicago. They were just 15 minutes into a vacation trip, Foster says, when the car in which they were riding was rear-ended by a hit-and-run driver and sent careening into a center divider. After the crash, Foster did not resume competition until last August. But his body was fresh and he had a renewed sense of purpose—and he won.

Heretofore Foster has had an image as a talented runner-up. At first he was second fiddle to Renaldo Nehemiah. Then Nehemiah went off to the 49ers to play catch with Joe Montana. In the '84 Olympics the heavily favored Foster finished second to U.S. teammate Roger Kingdom.

"If Greg gets silver or bronze, he might be headed for self-destruction," fellow hurdler Tonie Campbell had predicted before the Los Angeles Games. "That's the last you'll ever see of him."

But after that Olympic failure, Foster graciously hugged Kingdom and ran a victory lap with him. "When I first stood up to get my medal, I was thinking of the start of the race, where I lost it," Foster says. "Then I saw my mother standing there with a big smile and it didn't matter to her whether I had a gold or a silver."

Just as Foster left his Chino Hills, Calif. home for the Sunkist meet, he picked up a little stuffed animal given to him by his 4-year-old son, Brandon. The animal wears a T shirt that says DON'T MESS WITH MY DAD. "I pick it up, calm myself down and think about my family and my son," Foster says. "No matter what place I finish, they're going to be happy." He plans to dedicate each meet this season to a member of his family: Friday was for his mother.

After false-starting once, Foster burst from the blocks and glided over the hurdles to finish in 5.88 seconds, .04 better than Nehemiah's record. "It was the best start I ever got in my life," Foster said, later adding, "I actually thought I had jumped the gun."

Foster returned to the starting line 20 minutes later, this time to chase Nehemiah's mark in the 60-yard highs. Foster false-started twice and was disqualified. He would have to wait to exorcise that other demon. But there would be plenty of time for plenty of records; the U.S. indoor season was but one night old.

TWO PHOTOSJOHN MCDONOUGH PHOTOPETER READ MILLER PHOTOPETER READ MILLERFoster got a fantastic start and flashed through the 50s in a world record 5.88. PHOTOJOHN MCDONOUGHSimpkins and the Fridge, his onetime teammate, put Aiken, S.C. on the sports map. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERGray promised an 880 record, and his 1:46.8 was one.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)