Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 12, 2013

The Sky Pole

This week, I got an email from Bob Seagren. all but a select few of you will ask,”Bob who?”

When I was in high school, the sport of pole vaulting was having a great upsurge in popularity in the United States. An American always won the gold medal in that event. ALWAYS. In the run up to the 1968 Olympics, we got fairly steady exposure to the sport on “The Wide World of Sports,” as the ABC TV network ginned up interest in advance of the vast sums they were spending for the broadcast rights to the competition in Mexico City. Clearly, the guy to beat was an American, 21 year-old Bob Seagren from Pomona, California. Seagren posted a number of world records in the years leading up to the ’68 Olympics, and, as expected, won the gold medal there. He set his last world record in 1972 at a whisker short of 18-1/2 feet, which is a heck of a distance to fly into the air over the bar (the men’s world record in 2016 is 20 feet, 2-1/2 inches; women’s, 16′ 6-34″).

Mr. Seagren now runs an enterprise that organizes and promotes sporting events, including the Long Beach Marathon and Half Marathon. On the years we drive across the bridge to compete in the Long Beach Half, we see Bob at the starting line, up on the starter’s tower. I wave at him, and recall his fantastically successful career. Bob was writing to me (and whoever else was on the mailing list) to encourage our support for a local cause. Kind of cool to get a letter from THE Bob Seagren.

Back in that heyday of American vaulting, as Seagren dominated the event, I was inspired by the idea and wanted to try it. What could be cooler than soaring into the air and flopping down on the other side of that bar? I joined the track team. My sport was football, and we were expected to do SOMETHING in the off-season, so track was it for me. There were drawbacks. Unless one was a standout at some special event, requiring all of one’s dedication in practice, one was expected to compete in a couple of events. I was no kind of outstanding pole vaulter, which meant I had to train for some running events, too. I was not fast. Nor was I smart, so I didn’t train at all intelligently to get faster, which I could have. I trudged my mandatory 4 miles per day around the cinder track and then headed over to the vaulting pit behind the bleachers.

I wasn’t a good pole vaulter, and I never “soared.” I didn’t really understand or work at the things that are required: sprinter-like acceleration and speed down the runway, tremendous leaping strength, as well as immense torso and arm strength, in addition to flawless technique. I didn’t actually understand that each one of those things was a discrete item that had to be developed and honed, then assembled into a holistic action to get to a respectable height. I should have been running many, many 30- and 40-yard sprints, working hard in the school’s primitive weight room, running more sprints, lifting more weights, then maybe vaulting a half-dozen times a day. Instead, I just kept running down the strip of asphalt, carrying the pole in the more-or-less appropriate way, planting it, and getting over some measly height — or not.

Our “facility” was probably worse than any in use at any high school in the United States today. A crumbling black asphalt runway, battered old standards and bar, and the landing pit … well, it was a pile of sawdust ( as described HERE).

Although I could have greatly improved my performance by better training, the one other way to soar high, of course, is to get a better pole. The development of highly flexible synthetic material vaulting poles was in its infancy, but they did make a difference. I actually did some of my training with both bamboo and aluminum poles, the predecessor to the new “banana” poles, then our school acquired a new fiberglass pole. It wasn’t one of the better brands, and didn’t have much flex to it. We’d see the bigger schools with more competitive vaulters using the premier brands, which had clever names like Cata-Pole and Dyna-Pole, but none were so exotic and COOL as the Sky Pole. Man! If only we could have a Sky Pole! THEN we’d be good!

Seagren, of course, WAS using the very latest in the banana pole technology. The pinnacle of his career loomed as the 1972 Olympics got under way in Munich. He was again the favorite to win the gold medal. However, a ruling by the sport’s governing body banned the use of the banana poles, because they weren’t universally available (mostly due to cost) at the time, and Seagren and others had to use unfamiliar poles. Seagren finished second, the first time an American had failed to win the Olympic vault, ever. Mr. Seagren went on to do a lot of other interesting things, which you can read HERE.

The payoff to this long reminiscence about my not-so-vaunted vaulting days came just a few weeks ago. The Counselor and I were running laps at our nearby track (an activity I enjoy a lot more now than I formerly did). For the first time in the years we’d been circling that track, my attention was drawn to an old equipment cage in a storage area of the track. Hanging on brackets bolted into a concrete wall were AMAZING objects! (click on photos for larger images)

Vaulting pole logos Brad Nixon

Vaulting poles, left hanging on their rack for untold years — decades — after the high school stopped competing there. Cata-Pole! Dyna-Pole! SKY POLE!

I took the Sky Pole off its rack.

Weathered and no longer safe for use — probably so  brittle it would shatter if one applied any real pressure to it — the ol’ shaft still had the heft and “wiggle” I could remember from forty years ago. Finally, I held in my hands the object of my desire:

Brad with Sky Pole M Vincent

I put it back in its place; there let it  stay. We’ll just call it the Under the Western Sky Pole.

© Brad Nixon 2013, 2016. 2nd photo © Marcy Vincent 2016, used by kind permission.

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Responses

  1. Enjoyed this post! Keeping it real, Bob set a WR at the 1972 Olympic trials in Eugene at 5.63 m (18′ 5 3/4″). The pole that was banned from the 72 games was the Catapole 550+ a green pole with a yellow label that was made with carbon fibers and was later marketed as “the unfair advantage”. I was 14 when I saw Seagren receive the OGM in Mexico City. Standing on the podium, tears in his eyes with the Star Spangled Banner playing was very moving and made me proud to be an American! I wound up vaulting 14′ in the summer of 1976, which looking back now at 61 seems like a surreal dream.

    Like

    • RPC,
      Thanks for the comment and the detail about Seagren’s pole. Congrats on 14 feet. Not an altitude I’ve attained without powered flight.

      Like


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