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I Am Woman, Watch Me Soar The first female pole vaulting at the Millrose Games was a sight to behold

Feb. 23, 1998
Feb. 23, 1998

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Feb. 23, 1998

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I Am Woman, Watch Me Soar The first female pole vaulting at the Millrose Games was a sight to behold

In 90 previous runnings the Millrose Games had seen more than
its share of eye-catching pole vaulters, from Cornelius
Warmerdam, who cleared a world record of 15' 3/8" with a bamboo
pole in 1942, to Bob Richards, the Vaulting Vicar, who won an
astonishing 11 straight Millrose titles from 1947 to '57 on
poles of steel. In the fiberglass age Steve Smith in '73 became
the first to clear 18 feet indoors, and Sergei Bubka, the
greatest vaulter of all, set the meet record of 19' 2 1/2" two
years ago.

This is an article from the Feb. 23, 1998 issue Original Layout

Last Friday night a near capacity crowd of 17,765 turned up at
Madison Square Garden to watch the Millrose Games and toast the
meet's eight most outstanding performers in the 30-year history
of the "new" Garden, from diminutive high jumper Franklin Jacobs
to milers Eamonn Coghlan and Mary Slaney. But as happy as the
crowd was to dwell on the past, it also showed its eagerness to
embrace the future.

For the first time Millrose included a women's pole vault. From
the moment Samantha Shepard, a precocious eighth-grader from
Weston, Mass., sailed over the opening height of 11' 3/4" to the
attempts by American-record holder Stacy Dragila and Janine
Whitlock of Great Britain to clear a world indoor record of 14'
6 1/2", the crowd gave its heart to the female vaulters, urging
them down the runway by clapping rhythmically and cheering
lustily--very lustily. These women seemed to have muscles
everywhere, some of the muscles sheathed in skintight Lycra,
some of them not. Dragila was asked whether the greatest selling
point of the women's vault might turn out to be aesthetic. "You
know," she said with the grin of a very good sport, "I wouldn't
mind if the guys vaulted with their shirts off."

Only a few years ago it was possible to say of the women's vault
what Samuel Johnson said of women preaching and dogs walking on
their hind legs: "It is not done well; but you are surprised to
find it done at all."

No more. The women's world indoor vault record is tumbling so
often these days that it was broken twice in the 10 days before
the meet and twice more the day after the meet. At press time
the world standard was 14' 6 3/4", set last Saturday at a meet
in Sweden by 20-year-old Vala Flosadottir of Iceland. Jan
Johnson, the bronze medalist in the 1972 Olympic vault and now
coach of Sky Jumpers Vertical Sports Club in Atascadero, Calif.,
says that more than half the kids coming into his program are
girls. "Some of the boys jump on testosterone," he says, "but
the girls seem to have the patience to learn good form and
technique."

Sixteen states now have the event at the high school level. This
spring the women's vault will make its debut at the NCAA outdoor
championships, and in 1999 it will be included in the world
outdoor championships. It hasn't been approved for the 2000
Olympic Games in Sydney, but its chances can't be hurt by the
fact that, for the moment at least, the best vaulter in the
world is Emma George of Australia.

"This is the best illustration that women can do all the things
men can do," says Casey Roche, who coaches the men and women
vaulters at Stanford. "Women proved it in gymnastics, and this
is a gymnastics event. They'll make 15' 5" this year and 16 feet
soon."

The vault probably combines more athletic skills than any other
track and field event: sprint speed, upper-body strength and
gymnastic body control. Courage, or at least recklessness, also
helps. "My women, mentally and physically, are as tough as my
men," says Roche. "One vaulted with a broken hand, one with a
broken foot. I don't think any of my guys could have done that."

Like any new sports activity, women's pole vaulting is
attracting curious athletes from a variety of backgrounds, many
of whom possess the anything-goes mentality that flourishes on
any frontier. The 24-year-old George, who holds the world
outdoor record of 14' 11", was a circus performer long before
she was a conventional athlete. Her parents put her in an
Australian troupe called the Flying Fruit Fly Circus when she
was eight, and she specialized in trapeze and balancing acts,
such as doing handstands atop six stacked chairs. Though no one
could have appreciated it at the time, that was the perfect
preparation for the vault. Flosadottir, Iceland's first
world-record holder in any track and field event, is a former
high jumper. "She's six feet tall, which gives her great
leverage," says Whitlock.

The women's vault has opened a new world for some athletes. "I
thought after my college career was over, I would get married
and go on with my life," says Dragila, who was a volleyball
player and hurdler at Placer High in Auburn, Calif., and a
good-but-not-great heptathlete at Idaho State before her coach
suggested she give the vault a try. She made her first
successful leap in the spring of 1993, clearing six feet in a
state of mortal terror. "I wanted to hold my pole close," she
says. Now she does high-bar and trampoline work to overcome the
natural human reluctance to hang upside down. When someone
suggested that at 26, she was a founding mother of the event,
she swiftly corrected him: "Grandmother!"

On Friday night, after Whitlock missed her first try at 13' 9
3/4", Dragila cleared the height and took the lead for good,
even though Whitlock made a second-try clearance. The two women
then moved the bar to 14' 6 1/4", but neither of them came close
on three tries. Though disappointed, Dragila chalked up her
failure to a recent stint of student teaching, which had
curtailed her training. She noted that this might mean she will
peak later this season, which would please her.

Still, no one at last Friday's meet is likely to peak later than
Shepard. Last spring, as a seventh-grader, she cleared 12 feet,
nearly pulling off the rare feat of vaulting her age--she had
turned 13 some four months earlier. At Millrose she looked all
limbs and seemed slightly out of place in her baggy black shorts
amid the shimmering Lycra. But Shepard broke the national high
school indoor record with a jump of 12' 6" and had one decent
try at 12' 11". Among those she impressed was men's vault winner
Jeff Hartwig, who broke Bubka's meet record with a clearance of
19' 2 3/4". "Bubka has always said it takes 10 years to master
the vault," said Hartwig. "None of the women vaulting now has
been doing it for anywhere near that long. Heck, when I was in
ninth grade my best was 9' 6". The best for sure is yet to come."

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA Scanty uniforms and daredevil athleticism drew lusty cheers for winner Dragila (above) and her rivals. [Stacy Dragila vaulting]COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA OVER THE TOP Kim Becker, a former heptathlete at Augustana College in Illinois, finished third with a vault of 13' 5 3/4".