From Dream to Legacy: A Personal History in the Pole Vault (or Fiberglass Vaulting Poles 101 – now the unabridged version)

by Debra Chappell

View From the Bleachers:


Mood Reading:  zzz’s (catching up on the ones I lost during the holidays)

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  The interview contained herein was posted last night – and appeared as it does in Vaulter magazine.  Due to space and length constraints of the magazine, some of the more anecdotal portions understandably were edited out. This morning however, after a few cups of coffee I realized the only constraints of my blog are my readers attention spans and refills of the respective beverages they may be consuming while reading it. So grab yourself a refill and get comfy — I have included those portions back in. (and thank Vaulter Magazine for posting a link to the unedited version as well) 

It’s that time of year.  With the National Pole Vault Summit quicklyMary Saxer copy approaching on Jan. 17th, (that 3-day epic sporting event celebrating the lifeblood of my immediate family) this space will once again be temporarily diverted from the intermittent ramblings of a rural blonde writer to the musings of a well-seasoned (read that: aging) pit-lizard.

As such, I was recently asked by Vaulter Magazine and friend Bubba Sparks for an interview about my father, his life, and personal observations around the pole vault pit for this month’s issue. (There is an upside to sheer longevity after all.)  I was not only touched to be asked but enjoyed revisiting happy memories of my father, family, and extended family in the pole vault community.  What struck me most was that Bubba’s questions were mostly centered around the people and relationships in the event which is what I’ve always enjoyed most, rather than an exhaustive expose on technique and pole selection, my knowledge of which combined you could cram into a pole tip!

I am sharing the interview here in the lead up to the National Pole Vault Summit and will probably break it into a few installments. CIMG1605There is a portion dedicated to the evolution of the fiberglass vaulting pole – which will only be of interest to the die-hard PV disciples. So to the casual reader or my ‘civilian’ followers – feel free to use that time instead to redeem your Xmas gift cards to Starbucks.  I will in no way be offended.  : )

So, without further adieu, here is Bubba’s introduction as it appears in Vaulter Magazine:

“It occurred to me during a Facebook exchange with Debbie Chappell that no single living person has seen more fiberglass pole vault history than Debbie.  Her father was George Moore, who partnered with engineer Herb Jenks to create the modern day pole as we know it.  For 39 years she has been married to Steve Chappell of UCS Spirit Vaulting Poles, the unquestionable leader in total records for the pole vault, and a major force behind the National Pole Vault Summit in Reno each year.  From childhood to adult she has witnessed the evolution of the very equipment we hold most dear, the pole vault pole itself.  As a lifelong vaulter and fan I asked Debbie if she would be kind enough to let me interview her and I’m grateful she consented.  Not only did she consent but she sent me 14 PAGES of answers to my questions and many photos.  This article is a series of excerpts from that “interview”.  Vaulter Magazine owner, Doug Bouma will provide a link so you can read the entire interview.  She also submitted several historical photos.  Thank you Debbie!!  I’m honored to know you and I thank you so much for sharing your insights.  Bubba”


 1.     What are your first memories of your exposure to pole vaulting? What were your thoughts and impressions?

I honestly can’t ever remember a time not being around the pole vault.  Even before my father started his business in the early 60’s, he was a huge fan (an old vaulter himself) and would take my sister and me to meets with him. I do remember being quite surprised to learn that some of the kids that lived on our cul de sac in Southern Calif. went to Dodgers games instead of the Mt. Sac Relays, like boy, how weird is that?

It was just what we did.  My sister (who is 4 years older) remembers seeing  Dave Tork break the world record at Mt. Sac in 1962 – honestly, I was too young. I was probably off sucking Pixie Stix under the bleachers – those were my earliest memories of track meets.

The first vaulter that made an impact on me was Paul Wilson (Bubba-1st high school vaulter to clear 16’/4.88m).  He was in high school and I was in grade school. He didn’t know I existed but I remember him being very polite to me. My father was close to his family. They lived in Downey, not far from us, and I remember being at their home on several occasions and at his practices on a few. I remember him being talked of as “the high school phenom”, but really wasn’t at an age to appreciate what that meant – I just thought he was cute.

To be honest, when I was very young and growing up around it, I never gave the event itself much thought.  I didn’t know or care about the mechanics of it, I liked the competitions to watch, it looked like fun, and I always had a blast hootin’ and hollerin’ in the stands for my favorites (read that: the guys using ‘our’ poles!) A funny little aside here: When we were kids, my sister and I would sit in the stands and try to jinx the guys not using Dad’s poles (girls weren’t vaulting then).  We’d pound our fists on our knees and mutter under our breath, “Miss! Miss! Miss…” over and over.  One time my dad caught us and we got scolded.  He told us in no uncertain terms that we were never to wish for somebody to miss, that we could only root for the people we liked to make it, or just keep quiet. A lesson I still heed today : )

But in those early years, it was the people who were around who were most interesting to me, the different personalities and their varied backgrounds.  We always had coaches and athletes coming and going and it all seemed very exciting.

I think it wasn’t until the era of the Bob Seagren/John Pennel rivalry in the mid 60’s that I started paying attention to the event as something other than just what my father was involved in. I was just getting into middle school and started really enjoying the scan0001competition aspect.  Bob was unique, an extraordinary competitor.  Even as young as I was, I understood that. He and my dad had a special bond and he was very special to our family.  Not only was he this handsome, fierce competitor and athlete, but really a true friend. He was always warm and gracious to my sister and me.

I remember on one occasion in high school I had just broken up with my boyfriend. I’d been mooning around the house the whole afternoon and my dad I think was fed up.  He finally came to me and said “look, we’re meeting Bob and Kam (Bob’s wife to be) for dinner tonight, why don’t you come along, it will make you feel better.”  I reluctantly tagged along.  When Kam found out what had happened, she talkedphoto copy to me for a long time about “stupid boys” and gave me lots of advice, and Bob teased me all through dinner just to make me feel better.  And oh yeah, I think there was some vault talk squeezed in there some where, but all I know is I felt like a million bucks leaving that dinner, and never forgot it — or Kam’s advice about those “stupid boys”.

And of course, then the Swedes came along, Kjell Isaksson (and Hans Lagerqvist) and that rivalry with Bob and the subsequent talk and exciting times around our house escalated mightily along with the falling records.

2) Tell us about your dad. He is universally recognized as the father of modern pole technology. What do you remember that indicated to you that what he did was special? What kind of personality type did he most resemble?

I just want to clear up one misconception about my father (a flattering one but a misconception all the same). He wasn’t a scientist or an engineer and didn’t ‘invent’ modern pole technology.  That credit goes (and goes alone) to his business partner Herb Jenks. It was Herb who invented and developed the very first fiberglass vaulting pole.

Herb was brilliant. Every single brand of pole in use today owes atphoto copy 2 least some aspect of its technology to Herb Jenks.  And though a genius by all accounts, Herb was a shy, retiring, and quiet man. He knew the science of the implement, but wasn’t a salesman by nature or avid student of vault technique.  It was my father who understood the event, vault mechanics, and most of all, the psyche of the athletes using their poles.  He would observe, listen, and identify the needs and preferences of athletes and take them to Herb. My dad would make suggestions, and it was Herb who turned those ideas into the final product.

As far as resembling a personality, I think Bill Cosby as Dr. Huxtable could have taken a few lessons from my Pop.

My father was a kind, warm, generous and outgoing man with a photo copygreat sense of humor and an even greater sense personal responsibility and integrity.  He loved the event and on the whole, liked and respected all it’s participants, even the ones who didn’t use his equipment.  He was their advocate, greatest supporter, and in many instances, confidant.  After a meet, he would gather up all the vaulters, (even those who didn’t use his pole,) and take the lot of them out to dinner. If they weren’t literally sitting around the dinner table after a meet, they were certainly a part of his daily life and our nightly dinner conversation. People like Bob Seagren of course, but also Dave Roberts, Jan Johnson, Dick Railsback, Terry Porter, Bob Pullard, Vic Diaz, Bob Slover, Larry Jesse, Earl Bell, Mike Tully, Dan Riply, Billy Olsen, Brad Pursley, Tim Bright, Dave Volz, Joe Dial,  Scott Huffman, Kory Tarpening and a host of others, ended up either at one of my “dad’s dinners” or shooting the breeze with him after or before a meet, and on the phone in between. The dinners were always fun, boisterous and sometimes cathartic occasions, especially for anyone who had no-heighted that afternoon or evening. They were marked by high spirits, lots of teasing and a real sense of camaraderie. And for a young girl along for the ride, they were always a thrilling experience. He made everyone he spoke with feel good about their performance, potential, or future in the event. His optimism and enthusiasm were contagious and I think he inspired many. I, in any event, always enjoyed being privy to these frequent but special occasions and this unique brand of somewhat exclusive kinship.

Away from the track, my dad was just that, my dad.  He took my sister to drill team practice.  He carpooled my cheerleading squad tophoto 1 all of our games, he drove me to school every morning, he teased me, scolded me, helped me and supported me.  Most of all, he made us feel loved and taught us never to settle, that we were special.  He was generous and encouraging and surprisingly photo 2 copy 3didn’t give, as he would say, “a rat’s ass” if we ever competed in sports or not.  He wanted us to follow our own passion and had faith in us that we could and would. He led great, passionate, and sometimes loud political discussions at the dinner table. He was a sports fanatic and we had three TV’s in the house (when most families only had one.) He often had a Lakers game on in one room, a Dodger’s game on in the other, and the news on all the time.  He bellowed at the TV during Ram’s games, and I along with him.  Yelling exquisitely from the photosidelines at sporting events was an art I inherited from him, much to the chagrin of my own boys when they started competitive sports. He loved Tarzan movies and put salt on green apples and watermelon.  He had a strong social conscience and made me come in from playing outside to watch the coverage of JFK’s assassination, the moon landing, and the start of the Watergate hearings, saying they were historical events and I would and should never forget them.  He was right of course. And he could do one helluva jack-knife off a diving board Herb invented into our backyard swimming pool too.

photo 2 copy

photo 3 copyphoto 2 copy 3I guess I was always conscious of the fact that people in the sport seemed drawn to him and he kept company with some it’s heavy weights – Dutch Warmerdam, Peyton Jordan, Bill Bowerman, Jim Bush, Ron Morris, George Dales, Bert Bonanno, John Chaplain, Verne Wolfe, Ernie Bullard, Jim Tuppenny, Ken Shannon, Don Ruh, John Mitchell, and the man he would later regard as not only a close friend but one of the foremost experts in the vault field, coach Tom Tellez.  Being in the company of such giants in track and field at the time was both thrilling and inspiring to be sure, but it truly was my father’s interaction and rapport  with the athletes, both world class and unknown, that  fueled his passion for the event, and made him the most happy.  My father died in his prime, he was only 51 years old.

It wasn’t until I was an adult, and sadly, during his illness (brain cancer) and after his death that I realized the impact he’d made on so many, and on the event itself.  I remember Bob Seagren completely breaking down at his graveside, and the letters cards and notes that poured in from strangers all over the world after he passed away was almost overwhelming.  We had no idea of the depth and breadth of his reach, nor the deep appreciation felt by those he’d touched.   Even now, I am still moved and so proud when someone comes up to me and says “Hi, you may not know me, but I knew your father. Boy, he was a great man.” And when my own boys, who now work “in the business” at UCS, come home from a conference or a meet and tell me someone told them a story about their grandfather, that is the greatest gift and legacy of all.

3) When was the first time you realized your dad was a very big deal in our sport? Did you want to vault and did he encourage you to vault? When do you first remember girls vaulting for fun?

My first inkling that he was “big deal” came when I was a sophmore in high school, in 1971.

Seeing him in his own element was one thing, and I grew used to it taking literally hours to walk from the stands after a meet to the parking lot with him, for all the people that wanted to stop and chat. But seeing him in my element was quite another.

We had a career day at school and the teacher coordinating it was asking for volunteers to come speak to kids about their professions.  The idea was that students would move from room to room, listening to accountants, doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, or secretaries etc., talk about their occupations.  I approached this teacher, Mr. DeCrona, and being the doting daughter I was, suggested that my dad could come in and give a talk. When I told Mr. DeCrona what my father did for a living (that he made vaulting poles) his reception was, well, let’s just say lukewarm to be polite — but he reluctantly promised he would try “to fit him in somewhere.” I went home thrilled and asked my father.  Dad agreed photoand had a suggestion (because he was always enthusiastic about anything he did.) He said “hey, what if I brought a vaulter or two along? That would make it more real and interesting — maybe talk about the Olympics or something.”  I passed this along to Mr. DeCrona who then asked me for my father’s work number to coordinate it all, acting as if it was just one more stupid detail he had to deal with.

A week before career day, Mr. DeCrona pulled me aside in the hallway. He seemed very agitated. (I thought I was in trouble.)  He said “Geez Debbie, you didn’t tell me he was bringing along Bob Seagren!!!  Word has gotten out. I have every coach in the area wanting to bring their team to listen.  Now I have to book the whole damned performing arts building to fit everyone in!”

Needless to say we packed the place and I took great pleasure in knowing that ol’ Doctor What’s-his-name was stuck out in the biology lab with only a handful of kids listening to him.  For the rest of the week I had kids who I didn’t know coming up to me asking “was that your dad with Bob Seagren?  Wow!”  I grew a head taller that week. When my friends started telling me how cool my dad was, than I started to believe it!

Interestingly, I never had a desire to vault. I grew up on a cul-de-sac loaded with kids (Catholic, Mormon, 7th Day Adventist, you name it – there were a slew of us – 36 kids, give or take a rug rat, within 10 households) There was plenty to do — we all had swimming pools and there was never any reason to leave the neighborhood for entertainment.  We played team sports year round, had a high jump pit in our back yard, and played poker and board games in someone’s garage all summer long. Really, it never occurred to me. My dad didn’t encourage me in that way either. He always supported me in whatever I was doing, but I think he figured if it was something I wanted to do, I would come to him, he was never one to push us in a specific direction unless we came up with the idea first.  But, in general, I was just busy doing other stuff.

My first memory of girls vaulting for fun was actually at one of the first Pole Vault Summits, I imagesthink around 1994.  It was before Melissa Price blazed a trail through the legal system in California, to let girls compete in the event in high school.  A couple of girls showed up with poles and wanted to vault.  Bob Fraley and Steve and Lane looked at each other and said “why the heck not?”

Later, I was never more proud of all of these men as when they stood up to USA Track and Field a few years later when funding for the Summit was threatened if they continued to let women vault at the Summit. Those three men just said, (and I’m paraphrasing) “Do what you have to do, but the girls are staying.”

To be continued…