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One Brief Shining Moment Until a crippling fall in '63, Brian Sternberg was the world's best pole vaulter

Sept. 21, 1998
Sept. 21, 1998

Table of Contents
Sept. 21, 1998

Home Run Chase
Baseball [bonus Piece]

One Brief Shining Moment Until a crippling fall in '63, Brian Sternberg was the world's best pole vaulter

July 2, 1963, was a languorous summer day in Seattle. With the
rain in abeyance until autumn, residents had an unobstructed view
of Mount Rainier piercing a cobalt-blue sky. John F. Kennedy was
president of the U.S., the cold war had reached a roiling boil,
the Beatles had yet to break into the charts in America, and
Brian Sternberg, a junior-to-be at Washington, was the world's
best pole vaulter.

This is an article from the Sept. 21, 1998 issue

In April, at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, Sternberg had used
a state-of-the-art fiberglass pole to vault 16'5", eclipsing the
mark of 16'2 1/2" set by Finland's Pentti Nikula. A month later,
at a meet in Modesto, Calif., Sternberg cleared 16'7" to break
his own world record. He broke it again in June, when he vaulted
16'8" at a meet in Compton, Calif. "I had no doubt he was going
to be the first man to clear 20 feet," says Stan Hiserman, who
was then Sternberg's coach. "That's how good he was."

Sternberg often practiced his vaulting technique on a trampoline,
particularly when his shinsplints bothered him. On July 2, three
days before he was to leave for Moscow to compete against the
Soviet Union in a dual meet, Sternberg was "goofing around," as
he puts it, on the trampoline. He attempted a double somersault
with a twist, a maneuver, he says, he had completed "thousands of
times." He took a few warmup bounces to gain momentum and then
bounded skyward. In the amount of time it will take you to read
this sentence, his life was changed forever.

"I'm still not really sure what happened," says Sternberg, now
55. "I remember seeing my arms and legs sort of bouncing in front
of my body and not being able to do anything about it." Had he
landed a few centimeters to the left or right, had he made a
minor adjustment in the air, he might have walked away, perhaps
with a bruise. But he landed on the trampoline awkwardly, on his
neck, and suffered a dislocated cervical vertebra, an injury that
laymen call a broken neck. "My first thought was that I was going
to miss the chance to go to Russia," says Sternberg. "Then I
couldn't really feel anything, so I started yelling, 'I'm
paralyzed! I'm paralyzed!'"

Looking at Sternberg today, you might find it hard to believe
that more than 35 years have passed since his career-ending
injury. He is strikingly handsome, impeccably groomed, the
possessor of a disarming smile and a razor-sharp wit. In his
bedroom on the first floor of his mother's house in Seattle's
Queen Anne Hill district, he wakes up to a view of the Washington
campus. "People ask if I'm mad at the world or mad at God, but
being mad doesn't do me any good," he says. "Sometimes I feel I
was cheated a bit, but what can I do about it?"

Sternberg wants no pity, but when pressed, he admits that his
convalescence, which has spanned eight presidential
administrations, has often been excruciating. Tethered to a
high-tech wheelchair, he requires upward of two hours to get
showered and dressed in the morning. He suffers from short-term
memory loss as a result of a near deadly allergic reaction to
medication back in 1976. Though he is a quadriplegic, he can move
his shoulders, but his limbs ache. Until recently his blood and
oxygen circulation were so poor that he would pass out from the
slightest exertion. "It hasn't been easy," he says. "Just as with
pole vaulting, I still set goals. When something like this
happens, you just have to cope as best you can."

Sternberg, a former physics major whose vocational ambition was
to teach high school science, has used his ingenuity to make life
bearable. With a device fashioned from a chopstick, he can
depress a mouse with his mouth, which enables him to write and
draw on an agonizingly slow computer. The autodial and
speakerphone functions make it possible for him to call friends
and receive calls. He keeps the remote control to the television
and VCR close by, and he spends hours trolling the airways as an
amateur ham radio operator.

Beyond the gadgets and electronic amenities, Sternberg's room is
a shrine to flight. Posters of jets, fighter planes and eagles
adorn the walls and ceiling. The most arresting airborne images,
though, are black-and-white photographs of Sternberg in his
prime, sailing over a metal bar. With bulbous shoulder and arm
muscles and thick, powerful calves beneath even thicker thighs,
he was the picture of the golden-boy athlete. Says Hiserman, who
still visits his former star every few months, "Brian had
strength, speed, agility, technique--everything you need to be an
outstanding pole vaulter."

In the days after his fall, Sternberg's plight was international
news. While rehabilitating for 10 months in a Seattle hospital,
he received more than 5,000 letters--all of which he has kept. He
took calls from well-wishing dignitaries. The Soviet track team,
armed with roses, visited while it was in Seattle for a meet. But
eventually, as Sternberg puts it, "people started to get on with
their lives." The stream of visitors slowed to a trickle, the
bundles of mail shrank, and his health insurance from the
university lapsed. "I would get down a little bit," he says. "But
then I would think about the other kids who were paralyzed and
never had the kind of support I did."

In addition to emotional buttressing, Sternberg's vast network
has also provided financial support. Largely thanks to benefit
dinners and other fund-raisers, he has been able to employ a
full-time nurse. Perhaps more important, funds raised by the
Brian Sternberg Foundation helped him subsidize an operation that
has improved his health immeasurably: Two years ago Sternberg
traveled to Bad Pyrmont, Germany, near Hanover, to undergo an
omentum transposition, a controversial surgery pioneered by an
American named Dr. Harry Goldsmith. The procedure, which
Goldsmith performed, involved excising scar tissue from
Sternberg's injured area, then removing a large portion of the
omentum from its attachment at the lower edge of the stomach,
lengthening it and placing it on the injured part of the spinal
cord. According to Goldsmith, this increases blood flow and
neurochemical delivery from the omentum to the spinal cord.

"If it weren't for Dr. Goldsmith, we couldn't be sitting here
having a conversation," says Sternberg, who traveled abroad for
the surgery so that Goldsmith himself could perform the
procedure. "Before the operation there was so much pressure on my
diaphragm, and so little oxygen could pass through, that I
couldn't speak above a whisper. Also, now I have more feeling in
my fingers and toes, and my circulation is a lot better. I'm
encouraging people in my situation to go through with this
operation. It has made all the difference in the world."

Still, Sternberg can only dream about the day he'll walk or brush
his teeth. A more immediate task is strengthening his torso so
that he can keep himself from falling when he leans forward; he
uses a restraining strap now. But even when he's not in rehab, he
tries his best to stay active, writing letters of encouragement
to Christopher Reeve and others beset by paralysis and using his
computer to design a brochure cover for the Kiwanis Club
children's camp and Washington athletic department stationery.
Sternberg also attends every home Washington football game (he's
a friend and former classmate of the Huskies' coach, Jim
Lambright), and, like so many other guys his age, he can't get
enough of seeing sports on television.

As Sternberg watches the Mariners lose yet another game,
disappointment registers on his face for the first time all
afternoon. Suddenly, however, he perks up. "Hey, I forgot to show
you this," he says. He motions to the corner of his room, above
his hospital-style bed, where three framed letters, from John,
Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy, hang on the wall. The handwritten
missive from RFK seems particularly heartfelt. It implores
Sternberg to "keep up your marvelous courage and spirit and
continue your progress."

For 35 years, a time of unfathomable valleys and modest peaks--and
precious few piques--Brian Sternberg has done precisely that.

COLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN "I still set goals. When something like this happens, you cope as best you can." [Brian Sternberg]B/W PHOTO: AP In May '63, Sternberg cleared 16' 7" to break the world record he had set a month earlier. [Brian Sternberg pole-vaulting]