Do YOU Love to Pole Vault? Circa 2000

I began vaulting at the age of 12 with the stud of our Jr. High School team, a future movie star, the one and only, Patrick (Buddy) Swayze. Of course we didn't know that at the time. We just knew that his mom ran "Patsy Swayze's School of Dance", that he was MUCH more developed than us, and that he pointed his toes going over the bar. He was our HERO! I mean this guy could vault like we could only dream, and looked great doing it. I remember that he had a bit of a temper when things didn't go exactly as he hoped. At first I was mystified but then I realized that was why he was truly better than we were. I tried to be like Buddy and promised that no matter what, I would never give up and that I would not accept failure as a permanent destination.

I LOVE to pole vault!!! After a 15-year absence from the event, I arose from the Wall Street rat race a full 60 pounds heavier than ever!!! Yeah I had money (more than brains), but I DREAMED a haunting nightmare with increasing regularity that I was pole vaulting. Sadly and many times with midnight tears of frustration, I looked at my disgusting physical presence (or lack of) and knew that no matter how much I wanted and needed to vault, that I was incapable.

Eureka!!! I saw in the local paper that a "Veterans" track and field meet was to be held at the University of California at Irvine on Sunday. That was only three miles from my house so I was thrilled. I have to admit that I didn't know if I would be allowed to enter since I was not a "veteran" of our armed forces. I was delighted to find that it basically meant that you were old but wanted to keep competing.

I saw this guy that was 40 pounds heavier than me running down the runway with his dog chasing him. He made 8' but you would have thought it was 20' by the crowd and competitor response. THAT SECOND, I knew I had found a home.

I approached Vince O'Boyle, the esteemed and decorated head coach at UC Irvine with the proposition that I would coach his vaulters if he would let me vault there. I lasted 14 years and I am more thankful to Vince than ever before. If you know who I am then you know what we have done. If you don't, then PLEASE focus on the message.

So the title of this exercise (Do YOU love to pole vault?!), is not a life or death question. But consider that tonight I have a guest from South Dakota who is nearly 66 years old and wants to get the American and World Record for his age group. Another friend (55 years old) came to town a month ago to have a 6" vertical tear in his Achilles tendon repaired because, as he says, "I don't know what I would do if I couldn't pole vault". Over the past three years I have had over 10 cortisone injections, a surgery to repair three hernias and now two Achilles surgeries because I MUST VAULT!!! I once had a doctor tell me that at my age, I should just quit vaulting. I fired him on the spot and told the next physician that I didn't care if I had three knee replacements I would not quit!!! What a surprise - he's still my doctor today and for countless elite vaulters!!

What makes this event magical to each of us is just that, individual. My top girl, Lesa Kubishta went from 12' 7 ½" to 14' 4" in six months. Borya Celentano joined us as a 13'r and made 18' 6 ½". Is that more important than Dan Borrey vaulting 15' 1" to win the Masters World Championships and set a World Record at age 50 when he made 12' 6" the year before? It's all in the desire to pledge allegiance to a sport that forces you to grow both mentally and physically. Or as I tell my athletes - YOU MUST FACE YOUR DEMONS!!!

I've spent many hours consulting with my elite friends trying to make the transition from vaulting to the real working world. I'm happy to say that the "REAL" world is not difficult if you share our work ethic. I remember my first job with a Fortune 100 company and thinking, "these guys think THIS IS WORK". GIVE ME A BREAK!!!

CONFESSION - Here's what BUMS me and why I wrote this in the first place. I've had and have GREAT athletes that don't share our obsessive disease. It is understandable that not all vaulters will be this way. But with average (and below) athletes resorting to surgeries just continue the event, who do I choose to work with (since I always work for free).

1) VERY good HS vaulter comes out for team and says he can be at practice by 1PM on Tuesday and Thursday. He blows off Tuesday and comes at 2:30 on Thursday. I tell him to GO HOME!!! PLEASE consider retiring!!!
2) Decathlete from Fiji wants to get national record in the vault of 14' 1". He jumps for three hours at a time and I can't get him to stop. In flats (no spikes) he makes 13' 7" and is JUBILANT about his progress. I WILL SIGN THE ADOPTION PAPERS! He might as well be my kid!!!
3) AWESOME progress by two vaulters is shaded by sporadic behavior. WE (the devoted) see it will rain on Saturday so tell everyone we will practice on Friday. Class conflict OK - no communication - NO!!! Same situation and same weekend, we see it will rain on Monday and Tuesday, so we schedule a Sunday vault. Does it cross the minds of those athletes that they have unnecessarily missed two sessions? NO!! GREAT - that's why I work for free. I can choose whom I spend my time with.
4) A female recruit visited this weekend. She has the PERFECT and AWESOME attitude to be successful. Her problem is that she may not compete the entire year for her school because they disapprove of her having an outside coach. Her coach (JOE MYOSHI) is a good friend of mine and one of the finest coaches and people in our sport. Sounds like another case of big mouths and egos covering up small minds.

BOTTOM LINE - ARE YOU CURIOUS OR SERIOUS? We all pass through the stage you are at right now. Though I vaulted 18' 1" many years ago, I can tell you exactly what it felt like to clear my first bar at 6' 6". After I made 7' 6" I landed in the box barefoot trying 8' and put a hole in my foot. I couldn't tell my parents as I wasn't supposed to be vaulting. I was supposed to be running cross-country. One day I just stepped off the path and never came back.

Long before my first 10' vault I broke both of my ankles long jumping off our roof into all of the family's sofa cushions and mattresses after we were too tired to vault anymore. I WON BY LANDING ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PIT!!! Bones stuck out of my skin as I crawled into the house, but I didn't care because I won the vault AND the long jump that day.

Later we further annoyed the neighbors by constructing a vault facility in a vacant lot. We took old tires as our base, put discarded box springs from beds on top, and then filled an Army tent with carpet padding scraps. I made 11' 3" on that heap. Of course you had to jump 9' to make it up on the pit. I've often laughed with Jan Johnson about vaulting outside Tim Hamilton's (his college roommies) house in Abilene where he had an air-inflated pit (called a Cloud 9) that was also filled with carpet scraps. Under the lights at night it looked like aliens were dancing in there.

Many of you have seen me clearing 17' 7" and attempting 18' 1" on Shawn Devereaux's site. It's unusual because we have NO front buns (it hurt too bad to land in the middle so we put them there) and the standards were made in a metal shop. They weighed about 100 pounds and didn't slide as needed. You just tried not to land on them.

You may also have seen us riding off the bleachers on poles. That was to train our non-vaulter teammates how to ride out their dorm windows to avoid curfew.

My point is simply this: If you LOVE the pole vault you will do everything you can to learn about it and meet people with greater experiences than you. In my most successful Wall Street and business years, my #1 priority was to find people with more knowledge than me. I STILL do this (and find many) in the event that we love.

In closing, why does a fat old man of 49, who started vaulting at age 12, continue an event that has caused him much physical pain and surgical correction? WHY do I have so much company from the most unlikely places, like 52 year old 6' rs? One of the greatest masters vaulters and my friend, Bill Halverson, landed in the box in college and was in a coma for days, yet he still lives to excel in the vault. He's 45 and jumps in the 16' range!

SO are YOU getting what you really want from this event or are you just passing through? Either way, this message is for you. The season is just starting but WHERE is YOUR vault career? If you're having fun and moving on, GREAT!!! Your participation fulfills the answer to the most often comments I receive. People either say, "I've always wanted to try that"; "I've tried that once", or "I was too afraid to try that". In any case, YOU are the hero. If you want more from the event, the resources in our country are outstanding.

I will end with a funny note relayed by my great friend from Australia and two-time Olympian, Simon Arkell (19' ¼"). He was walking through the airport in Denver with his poles when a guy walks up and says, "hey are you a pole vaulter". Simon responds affirmatively but in his mind was saying, "I'm sure this is another 13' 6" guy". Instead the gent introduces himself as Dave Roberts (another great friend of mine). An interesting meeting considering that Dave was once the world record holder, got third at the 1976 Olympics, and like Simon was left handed. BTW - Simon has the world record for left-handers.

SIDE NOTE - I remember catching Dave's pole in high school when he first made 15'. It was a black Catapole - 1555 and felt like a "LOG": I remember being amazed at the huge prebend. He went on to Rice University in Houston and we trained there and watched his progress. My last info puts him as an emergency room surgeon in Florida.

OK - I'M DONE!!! The season is about to start and we are all very excited. MY ADVICE - Don't wait until May to find out how you're doing. It's like I told Lesa Kubishta as she went on to the field for the finals of the 2000 Olympics Trials, "No one ever expected you to be here in their wildest dreams, including you. You are very young, talented, and will be here many times in the future. Remember everything you see and feel about today because it will be very special for your lifetime. Sure you are here to compete but remember the colors, the pageantry, and the smell of the grass. A very small percentage of the population will ever be here. You must do this not only for you, but for the people that love the event like you but don't quite have the talent. Be the people's hero because only those of us with this type of love will understand." SO, DO YOU LOVE THE POLE VAULT?

~ Bubba Sparks ~