From Dream to Legacy – Vaulter Magazine Interview continued: Part II
by Debra Chappell
From The National Pole Vault Summit:
Mood Reading: ZZZZ’s (trying to store some of those Z’s for Summit week coming up)
*Note: The following is the second half of an interview I participated in with Vaulter Magazine. The first half was posted in my previous blog. The questions were written and submitted by Bubba Sparks, the answers appear here unedited.
4) How did you meet and get to know Steve? When did you realize the relationship he had with your dad was special? And with you? How long have you been married? Could I get a photo of just you as well as one of you, your dad and Steve?
I met Steve at a Track Meet (surprise!) at the Crystal Palace in London in 1972, right after the Munich Olympics (I was weeks shy of my 17th birthday). Our family had attended the Olympics where my father spent most of his time arguing with the likes of Avery Brundage, the IOC and others over the pole ban that year. A side tour to London after the games was part of our trip itinerary and a much needed break for my father.
Steve was then the UK National Junior’s Champion and according to British National Coach Morton Evans, “a real up and comer (and quite a looker).” When Morton called my father at our hotel in London inviting us to a post games meet at the Crystal Palace — I, my sister and my mother all let out a collective groan. Munich had been an ordeal for my father, we were ready to have some fun, we were in London for goddsakes do we have to go to another track meet? Not wanting to disappoint Morton, my father agreed. (He convinced my sister to go by pointing out that Buddy Williamson would probably be there – Bob Seagren’s friend and training partner who she’d had a few dates with. Needless to say the decision was made and the curling irons duly employed in short order.)
Steve was injured at the time so wasn’t competing in the meet and Morton introduced him to my father and the rest of us in the stands. He sat next to me during the entire meet and we talked the vault. That is, he talked and I must have nodded at the right time and dropped just enough pertinent terminology to impress him. (Little did he know at the time I had absolutely no clue what I was talking about or what any of it meant. I was just repeating things I’d heard over the years like “yeah, he’s waaayyy under!”) In any event he invited me to see the sights of London the next day and took me to Portabello Road (the huge open-air market in London) After that our family flew home and Steve and I wrote for two years until I went back to England with a girlfriend on a backpacking trip through Europe. We stayed with Steve’s family and well…. the rest is history. He moved to the states 5 months later and after a brief stint in teaching (Biology and soccer and track coach), went to work for my dad and Herb.
My dad and Steve hit it off right away. My dad would tease him about his Britishness and I think Steve found my father’s humor and easy manner refreshing. And of course they talked vault 24-7. Steve was still competing then so my father also helped out at training sessions, but he was careful not to advise unless it was solicited. They were both true students of the event. I think my father was very impressed that Steve not only wanted to learn everything about the technique of elite athletes (he’d earlier written his thesis on the vault and had solicited my father’s help in distributing a series of questionnaires to world class vaulters) but also wanted to know all about the history of poles and fiberglass and the great athletes of the past. They had a special chemistry that was evident from the start, and a shared passion for the event in its entirety.
So Steve came to live with my family 5 months after I returned from my European trip and within a month we were engaged and 9 months after that were married in Southern California. (August 9, 1975.) I was 19 and Steve was 23 years old, (and no, in case you’re wondering, our oldest son Michael wasn’t born until 3 years later!) We’ve been married going on 39 years.
5) Tell us your view of the transition from the Pacer III to the formation of UCS/Spirit? I’m sure this answer is a book in itself however perhaps you could provide an historical thumbnail.
Okay …this IS a book in itself and reads like the history of the fiberglass vaulting pole. I’ll try and give the abridged version. What makes it so confusing is that ever since Herb Jenks invented the very first fiberglass pole, he would improve on it, make a new one, and sell the old name and technology to other companies who continued to trade on the original name. So in essence, with each new pole he came out with, Herb ended up competing with his former poles. Just try to follow it the best you can, don’t worry about all the details, absorb what you want, ignore the rest and you’ll still get the general gist of it.
My father started as a small track and field company selling standards and starting blocks he’d developed, hurdles and a few other things (but not poles) in the early 60’s. He named his small track and field line Pacer.
Within a year or two he met Herb Jenks who had just invented a new, as yet unnamed, pole. (Herb had previously invented the first fiberglass pole at Silo-flex, and then the Browning Skypole) He and my father formed a partnership (and lifelong friendship) and named the new pole Cata-pole. So my father’s company, Pacer, was the sole distributer for Cata-pole, and then the Catapole 550+ (the one banned in Munich).
A few years later the AMF Corporation purchased my father’s Pacer company and Dad remained as CEO. By this time, Herb had an idea for yet another pole but was unhappy at Durafiber where he was manufacturing the Catapole. AMF offered to build a new building for the Pacer plant in Carson City, NV (where Herb lived) and Herb went to work directly with my father at AMF’s new facility. (Herb also did research and development for all of AMF’s other companies as well.) This is when my father moved our family from So. Cal. to Carson City NV in 1974.
Herb and my dad came out with this new pole, their third collaboration together, so named it the Pacer III. When Steve was hired, he worked directly with and under Herb Jenks in pole production and development. When Herb died tragically in 1979, the responsibilities for pole production shifted between Steve, Jim Wagner (the plant manager) and my father. Steve and Jim eventually took on the majority share of production duties and my father was forced to travel a little less. Two years later when my father passed away from brain cancer, AMF appointed Steve as General Manager of AMF Pacer, and Steve in turn hired Lane Maestretti full time (who’d been working at Pacer part time previously while training for the decathlon) .
With me so far? Okay, here comes the transition. AMF gets taken over by a corporate raider (someone who comes in and buys up the majority stock, and breaks up all the small companies and sells them each for a big profit.) AMF Pacer gets put on the chopping block. Two competitors are bidding for it – the Harry Gill company out of Illinois, and UCS out of New York.
During negotiations, Steve and Lane are talking to both companies who each have offered them jobs. Steve and Lane have an idea of their own however– they have a new design for a pole they’d been working on and don’t want to move from Carson City . When Jeff Schwartz of UCS discovers Steve and Lane don’t want to come with the Pacer company, he drops out of the bidding and starts talking to Steve and Lane directly. Jeff makes them an offer they can’t refuse –to stay in Carson City, Nevada and develop their new pole with the support and resources of UCS. Works for everyone. Spirit is born.
The Gill company moves Pacer (the name and little else) to Urbana Illinois and UCS Spirit opens their doors (just a few blocks away from the old building) in Carson City, less than 6 months later.
Doug Fraley wins the NCAA championships in 1987 on a Spirit prototype, literally fresh out of the oven. (I’m not kidding here.)
Doug’s original poles were broken en route to the championships in Baton Rouge. His dad, coach Bob Fraley calls Lane desperate for poles. Spirit wasn’t in wide-scale production yet and was still working out some bugs with the cosmetic tape used to wrap the new poles. They were reluctant to put the pole out there just yet. Bob Fraley insists, saying he doesn’t give a flip about the cosmetics, he wants poles – and needs them pronto – like within a day. Steve and Lane make Doug the poles, Lane grabs them right off the mandrel and hops on the next plane to Baton Rouge. Doug is unfazed by the weird crackling noise made by the tape and goes on to win the NCAA that year jumping 18’5” on poles never seen (or heard) before!
Several weeks later, Steve travels to Stockholm Sweden, just before the Rome World Championships with a bag of the new poles for Sergey Bubka.
Ever since Helsinki in 1983, when he first burst on the scene in striped knee socks and a plant as high as the Empire State building, Sergey, his coach Vitaly Petrov and Steve had formed a special bond and friendship, one that remains to this day. Steve from the beginning, oversaw the patterns and construction of Sergey’s poles at Pacer. So when Steve had decided to leave Pacer, he met privately with Sergey at the World Championships that year in Indianapolis (1987) to let him know of his plans.
Sergey quite simply said “when you are ready – these are the poles I will need – 13.0, 12.7, 12.4, and 12.1”
In July, Steve and Lou Schwartz (Jeff’s father) travelled to the D.N. Galan meet in Stockhom with his new bag of poles. Two days later, Sergy took his first jumps ever on UCS Spirit poles.
Worried that the new poles might cause unwanted repercussions (ala Munich, where poles were banned purportedly because they were not in wide distribution months before the Olympic Games there) Sergey chose not to jump on the new Spirit poles during the World Championships in Rome that year. That was 1987.
1988 was an entirely different story.
Steve was thrilled to witness Sergey break the World Record on Spirit in Bratislava that year, with a jump of 6.05m…which incidentally, was only his 3rd vault of the day. Afterwards, Sergey confided to Steve that he had vaulted 6.10m (20 feet) in practice, adding humbly that it was over a rope (bungee.) He told Steve then, “As we always say, first do it – before you say it.” In this day of tweets and fb, I think that’s still pretty sage advice.
Sergey Bubka went on to break several more World Records on Spirit. He has won six World Championship titles as well as the Olympic Gold Medal. He’s cleared 6m in competition 40 times and still holds the Outdoor World Record at 6.14m and the Indoor World Record at 6.15m.
Some might think it was the socks…we like to think his Spirit helped.
Since then, Gold Medals have been won on UCS Spirit vaulting poles by both men and women in the last four consecutive Olympic Games, including: Stacy Dragila and Nick Hysong (Sydney) Tim Mack and Yelena Isinbaeva (Bejing) and most recently in London at the 2012 Olympics by Jenn Suhr and Renauld LaVillenie.
Additional medals and records have further been set on UCS Spirit poles at every IAAF World Championships, Indoor World Championships, Youth and Junior Championships, and Masters and Senior level Championships since production began in 1987.
Personally, when our sons decided to pursue careers in the “family business”, I viewed it as both a curse and a blessing. Would life ever be free from strapping those blasted poles on the sides of rented cars, or talking our way past baggage handlers and onto airplanes without a lot of red tape, additional security checks and exorbitant baggage fees? But then I think about my dad and how pleased and proud he would be, and I forget about the long wished for Louis Vuitton matching luggage. With our sons Mike and Chris as well as the Schwartz brothers now working for UCS corporate, the next generation of Spirit users, both women and men, are already on the runway and in good hands. These athletes are ushering in a new and exciting era, and the family legacy will continue.
6) When did the idea of the Pole Vault Summit arise and how long from idea to reality?
This is really a better question for Coach Bob Fraley. He recognized a need for a national meeting of coaches to brain storm on how they could make the event better, safer, and discuss what was needed to improve vault performance nationally. At the time, coaching was taking place in a vacuum. There were pockets here and there showing great success, but for the most part, no one knew what others across the nation were doing. Coach Fraley thought there was an advantage to sharing ideas, techniques etc. so the seed originated with him. I’m not sure how long he’d been thinking of it before the first meeting, but somewhere around 1994 he invited several coaches to get together in Fresno and invited Steve and Lane as well. Originally it was just coaches and was not called the Summit. It was just a very productive meeting where everyone came away newly energized. The next year, Coach Fraley wanted to do the same sort of meeting only this time suggested they do it in Reno.
Now this is the truth as I remember it – some of the principals may dispute it but I would place a bet on any of Reno’s gaming tables that it’s pretty accurate.
Coach Fraley and his wife Elaine love Reno, and like to gamble. They were looking for a valid reason to get out of Fresno and come to Reno to play. Bob suggested they do the next coaches meeting in Reno. Steve and Lane wondered “how the heck are we going to get people to come to Reno in the middle of January”. That is when Steve and Lane came up with the idea to invite a few of the elite athletes as well and suggested it to Bob. The concept was to combine a coach’s clinic with a little competition afterwards. They all thought this would generate more interest among coaches and they could twist some arms to get a few athletes to attend.
They came up with the name the Summit, because of it’s proximity to the Sierra Mountain Range, and the convergence of like minds with a common goal. Bob’s seed took to it’s new mountain surroundings and continues growing.
7) how many vaulters competed in the first 3 or 4 summits. What was the biggest? I understand that the NCAA quit allowing it for qualifiers? Btw I’m going to do a trivia question about the first winner. I’m 99% sure it was AC at 5.70m which is his indoor PR.
For the first Reno Summit , the UNR Indoor Track Main pit and one additional pit were used. It was held in the Livestock Event Center, where it is still held today. About 70 people attended the first Summit in Reno and after the competition, take out pizza was ordered for everyone and we all sat around on the floor of the arena to eat it.
Pretty soon, they needed the main pit plus two more on the straightaway and shot area. Later, it had to be extended to 4 more pits on the upper mezzanine and also 3 more pits in the dirt horse pavilion next door! Since that time the Summit has only grown, and several years we’ve had well over 2,000 attendees on 11 pits in over 60 consecutive running competitions in one day — and are on that pace for this year as well.
From the very beginning, it was the Fresno State Track team led by Coach Bob Fraley and Coach Red Estes that were the massive logistical and driving force behind the Summit in its embryonic years. Without that support, the Summit would never have literally gotten off the ground.
As it grew and expanded, and the obvious need for additional facilities and logistical support became glaringly apparent, Brian Yokoyama and Doug Todd of Mt. Sac stepped up with their team and to this day that vital support has been unwavering.
It takes many hands (and aching backs) to get the Summit up and running each year. As many as 11 runways need to be assembled, the same for pits, standards and additional equipment. Trucks are brought in, heavy equipment hauled and unloaded, carpet is laid, and an entire dirt floor arena is transformed literally over night. Additional schools have offered hands on support including Chico State, Idaho State, the local Right of Passage and many other crazy individuals who do it for nothing more than the love of the event and a free breakfast buffet. Every year it simply amazes me.
The Summit has grown to much more than your average clinic followed by a “little competition”. It’s the only event of it’s kind anywhere in the world, where elite athletes mingle with beginning vaulters. Where kids just starting out can ask questions and get instruction from world class coaches. Where promising young vaulters can learn from their contemporaries, rivals AND some of the best athletes in the country. And it is also where alumni gather every year to offer their knowledge, enthusiasm, competitive insight and more than a few good ol’ yarns about their vaulting days. And the thing that is striking about it all to me, is the same feeling of camaraderie and passion that I witnessed so many years ago, only on a much grander scale. Now it crosses oceans, geography, genders, and multiple generations. In what other event would you find such a unique phenomenon? It’s such a huge gift and opportunity, and we’re all just so lucky to be a part of it.
Of course my role in it all is miniscule. I’m chief coffee fetcher and food runner and on occasion get pressed into service as the Welcome Wagon Hostess. During the Summit, I’ve learned to survive on little sleep and a steady diet of caffeine, Cheetos and if I’m lucky, an In and Out Burger or two. I’ve also learned to avoid some of the staff (in particular, anyone with the last name of Chappell) as they all seem to either have short fuses or worse, respond to my simple inquiries with glazed eyes or blank stares. And if I’m particularly exhausted on any given night during the Summit, I’ve learned to walk hurriedly through the hotel with my head down looking very busy, in order to sneak up to the room for a quick 40 winks. If I look up for even a second… I’m toast. The next thing I know it’s 3 in the morning and I’m still sitting around a circle of alumni (read that: old farts) laughing about that time that Greg Duplantis and Joe Dial….well, nevermind.
8) what vaulter was the biggest surprise when you met him/her and why?
This is a tough one because by the time I got around to meeting someone, they usually had been the subject of conversation around our dinner table for weeks. I already knew their stats, build, personality quirks and demeanor before I was ever formally introduced! Not much has changed in that regard, but I will say this: I’m always surprised how even the most fierce competitors on the field can be the most soft-spoken, friendly and charming off.
If I had to choose, I’d have to say Jenn Suhr for her tallness and stature, Renauld Lavillenie for lack there of. And Stacy Dragila because when I first met her, I forgot all about the fact that she was a pole-vaulter. She was just so warm and outgoing, and fun, I just wanted to go have a margarita with her.
But I have to admit, the biggest surprise from a vaulter that I personally experienced came from my own son.
Every parent that is reading this will recognize what I’m talking about here. There comes a time I think, in every young vaulters career that they cease being just a young talented athlete, and they suddenly become a competitor. Parents see this before anyone else. One day your kid is down there horsing around, waiting to jump, texting, flirting, cruising between jumps and in general, driving you crazy as only teens can. And the next they step on the runway and something is different.
They stand taller, there’s something about their carriage and confidence, they are engaged, intense and paying attention. Sure, they’re still doing it for the fun of it, but now they’re competing for themselves.
For me, that day came when our son Chris was a junior in high school at the State Championships in Las Vegas. He’d always been a decent vaulter with fairly good technique, and didn’t monkey around much when he stepped on the runway. But like most, had his other diversions (read that: girlfriend) and a social life and the typical distractions, as well a kid his age should have. But suddenly, at the state meet in Las Vegas, everything changed. He was one of two vaulters left in the competition and had to clear a personal best to win. It was late in the evening and the rest of the meet had finished, so a large crowd of other athletes and spectators had gathered around the pole vault pit.
Unfazed by the commotion around him, Chris stepped on the runway and bam, it hit me. He was there to win it. Even our son Mike, who had taken time from college to fly to Vegas to watch him, commented to me “Man, he looks like he knows what he’s doing out there!” He had matured right under our noses without us even realizing it. He was determined, focused, serious and yet completely relaxed at the same time. He strode instead of walked, and looked in command as he rested his pole on his shoulder and rubbed chalk into his hands. I could see it from where I was sitting — it was “game on.”
And then he did something that at his age, I’d never seen him do, and it surprised the heck out of me. He looked over into the stands, smiled and raised both his arms to begin ‘the clap’.
I remember thinking to myself then, “Well I’ll be, looks like we’ve got ourselves a pole-vaulter!”
For more Summit information and some terrific video of last years Summit visit: http://www.polevaultsummit.com/pole-vaul
*NOTE: I just want to say a special thank you to Doug and the folks at Vaulter Magazine for all the fine work they do, and for caring enough to solicit this interview. And a special thank you too to Bubba Sparks who suggested and coordinated it, and submitted interesting and compelling questions. It was and honor and privilege to take part, and allowed me some extra special time this holiday season to revisit cherished family memories. What a gift!
Hope to see you all at the Reno Pole Vault Summit!