This morning on NPR, a story took me deep into the Wayback Machine:
I’m old enough to remember “The Superstars” and I recall how intense the competitions were. Listening to Mike Pesca’s story and the interview sound took me back in time.
As the story talked about the story of the first season’s champion, Bob Seagren, a pole vaulter, I remembered meeting him.
It was 1974 (I think; it might have been ’73) and I lived in El Paso, Texas. Back then, it was the hotbed of American track and field. UTEP track teams routinely won NCAA championships and the mostly African athletes could be seen running throughout town in their distinctive orange and white sweats. The track team was an immense source of pride to El Pasoans.
The coach was Wayne Vandenberg. He was a hotshot promoter as well as track coach. In 1974, he organized a track meet at Kidd Field featuring Olympians and a world-class field. It was quite a day and there was even a streaker during the event!
I was in a full-length leg cast, having injured it in a bike accident earlier that year. My folks somehow managed a field pass for me and my dad pushed me and my wheelchair around the infield. As the day progressed, I witnessed a number of amazing performances and got many autographs on the program at my side. I particularly remember Wyomia Tyus coming over to say hi and sign.
At the end of the day, all the events had finished except the pole vault. The two best pole vaulters in the world, Seagren and Sweden’s Kjell Isaksson, were locked in an unrelenting, head-to-head duel. They were the only two remaining competitors and the entire stadium focused on the pole vault pit. Having the field pass let me sit immediately behind the judges at the pole stand, so I had the best seat in the house and I was loving every minute of it.
Jump after jump, each of these guys eliminated the competition until they were at the threshold of the outdoor world record. As I recall it, Seagren asked for a height that was quarter-inch over the world record. When world records come into play, things get crazy. And slow. Before the attempt, the height had to be measured and the wind had to be within a certain window (it was gusty that day). Finally, Seagren had his chance and he made the jump, setting a new world record.
Isaksson asked for another quarter inch and the waiting continued as the judges and wind did their thing and Isaksson claimed the world record for himself.
Sometime during this period, Seagren must have taken notice of the kid in the cast over by the pit. He came over and sat down next to me. He asked me how I’d broken my leg and I told him but, honestly, I have no idea what we said after that. All I remember is that one of the world’s greatest athletes and a personal hero was sitting on the ground, talking to ME!
After a few minutes, he stood up and said, “I guess I’d better go jump.”
At the end of the day, the two jumpers had both cleared the same world record height and finished tied in the meet, each with a share of the record.
Note: my recollections and the official world record history don’t jive. It could be that this was an exhibition or that they weren’t true world records or the details have been jumbled in the fog of a kid’s memory. I’m not sure. Nonetheless, my memories of that day were indelible, however history chooses to record the events I witnessed.