American vaulter of century to be named |

American vaulter of century to be named

Dave Price

Quick now, who was the greatest American pole vaulter of the 20th century?

A good case could be made for Cornelius “Dutch” Warmerdam, the first vaulter in the world to clear 15 feet – using a bamboo pole, no less. Or Bob Richards, one of 17 U.S. vaulters to capture Olympic gold but the only double winner – not to mention his 14 years as national television spokesman for Wheaties. Or Bob Seagren, who raised the world outdoor record five times during his illustrious career and won Olympic gold in 1968 – the last U.S. vaulter to achieve that feat.

All three were selected by a panel of experts as finalists for the U.S. Vaulter of the Century, which will be announced tonight to highlight the ninth annual USATF National Pole Vault Summit being held at the Reno/Sparks Convention Center in Reno.

The presentation is scheduled for 6 p.m. before the start of the elite competition. It makes this Summit truly special, according to event coordinator Steve Chappell of Carson City-based UCS Spirit.

“It’s pretty unique because this has never happened before,” Chappell said. “Because this award has created a tremendous amount of interest among all the athletes, we’re expecting to see a huge array of former Olympians and world record holders … Don Bragg (1960 Olympic champion known for his Tarzan yell after successful vaults) … Earl Bell … Dave Roberts … Mike Tully … They’ll all be here for sort of a reunion”

Determined by a Bob Fraley-selected panel, each of the three finalists represented a particular era in the pole vault:

Bamboo pole – Warmerdam, 84, who grew up on a farm near the San Joaquin Valley community of Hanford, Calif., became the first 15-foot vaulter at age 24 in 1940. He cleared that barrier 43 times before anybody else in the world did and set an indoor mark of 15-feet, 8-1/2-inches in 1943 that stood for 15 years. Ironically, Warmerdam never had an opportunity to compete in the Olympics because of World War II.

Steel pole – Richards, now a month shy of his 74th birthday, earned an Olympic bronze medal in 1948 then came back to win back-to-back gold in 1952 (14-11 in Helsinki, Finland) and 1956 (14-11-1/2 in Melbourne, Australia). He won 27 national indoor and outdoor titles overall. He also founded the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in 1950.

Fiberglass – Seagren, 53, was a member of America’s fabled 1968 Olympic squad who struck gold in Mexico City and shattered the Olympic record by nearly a full foot with his 17-8-1/2 clearance. He was one of the favorites again in ’72, but was forced to use an unfamiliar pole (his regular one was banned right before the competition) and settled for the silver.

“I know it’s a thrill for me to be involved with this because I became interested in the event as a teenager and I’m well aware of its evolution. And every one of these men played a special historical role,” Chappell said.

Tonight’s show isn’t merely limited to reminiscing about old times, by any means. The Summit may well live up to its name.

“All of the top American men will be here except Lawrence Johnson, who is injured, and all of the top 10 American women will be here,” Chappell said. “It’s a real possibility the American record could fall for either the men or women.”

Jeff Hartwig, who set an American men’s indoor record of 19-4-3/4 at the Summit last January, is returning and could take a shot at another record (now 19-5, which Hartwig set at the 1999 indoor nationals).

The women’s event will showcase Stacy Dragila and Melissa “Mel” Mueller. Dragila, a product of nearly Auburn, Calif., won the 1999 world women’s outdoor title with a 15-1 clearance that equaled Emma George’s world record. Mueller won the elite women’s event in Reno last year and has broken the American indoor record on two occasions.

The Pole Vault Summit agenda also includes a two-day clinic and age group competition starting on seven runways and pits at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday. In all, Chappell expects some 1,000 athletes and coaches will be present.

“We set out to put on a clinic and competition nine years ago and it’s just mushroomed,” Chappell said. “It’s almost too big to handle, but we get an awful lot of volunteer manhours helping us to set everything up.”