SANTA BARBARA — There certainly are worse places to pass through on the road to greatness than this pretty seaside community, at least if you don't mind your new friends' spiked hair.
The folks at San Marcos High School, and this town of 75,000 as a whole, have been good to Brandon Richards and his accompanying family support group. His is a situation that requires understanding from teachers and coaches, which is exactly what he has received.
There's no time to put down roots, though. Brandon Richards, son of Bob Richards, the former Olympic pole vaulting star, is just passing through on the way to what he hopes will be his own pole vaulting stardom.
Richards, in his young life, has already done a lot of passing through, and there's more of it ahead of him.
Six months ago, he was vaulting on a 150-foot runway and $4,700 port-a-pit in the backyard of the family's 4,600-acre spread in Waco, Tex. Now, he and his family live in a motel room, and by the end of June, he will have graduated from San Marcos, his fourth high school. Then he'll go on to UCLA in the fall.
During one especially busy stretch, he went from Santa Barbara to the U.S. Olympic Invitational meet in New Jersey, back to Santa Barbara and then back to New Jersey for a national prep meet a couple of weeks later.
"I think, and I've told him this, that I would like to see him jump more in the high school division now," said fellow vaulter Mike Tully of Encino, silver medalist in last summer's Olympics and Brandon's friend and mentor since they met at the Sunkist Invitational in January. "There is no reason to push him to the big leagues so fast. He is going to be around for a long time."
Convincing Richards that the high school scene will never come again is another matter. But then, Richards has never been one to act his age in sports.
So when the Channel League meet was held May 3 at UC Santa Barbara, Richards, the Texas state champion in the pole vault last season with Midway High School, was there only to encourage younger brother Tom, a freshman. This year, being the best in the league or the Southern Section or even the state of California just doesn't fit into his schedule.
He didn't vault in the league preliminaries at San Marcos for the same reason he didn't compete at any other time in the dual-meet schedule. He considered the conditions of the pits, the standards and the divot-dotted runways hazardous to his health and vaulting career.
Besides, he had these other meets coming up, and, well, there's only so much a guy can do. He's got this schedule for greatness to follow and a big name in vaulting to uphold. And experience has shown that when it comes to stardom, it isn't easy being Bob Richards' son. His act is tough to follow.
The senior Richards was the Olympic vaulting champion in 1952 and '56. He won the Sullivan Award as the outstanding amateur athlete. He was the Populist Party's 1984 Presidential candidate. He is an author and a motivational speaker, these days getting $3,500 a speech, plus expenses.
Bob Richards is sort of a combination Jack LaLanne and Vince Lombardi.
Mostly, though, he is Bob Richards, Wheaties man. How the people have gone for Bob Richards over the years! And how he expects them to go for Brandon!
So Brandon, who calls a Santa Barbara motel home, travels the country as an 18-year-old, hoping to live up to 30-year-old memories.
He streaked through the indoor season, was in Texas recently for the Houston Invitational, has a meet in Chicago down the line, and will be at UCLA's Drake Stadium for the Pepsi Invitational Saturday, which happens to be the same day as the Southern Section finals.
"I don't know how to say this without it coming out bad," Richards said. "The state meet is the biggest thing around, as far as these people are concerned. Most of them didn't even hear about the national high school meet in Princeton. They don't know of anything else other than the state.
"I wish they could put themselves in my shoes. If you had the opportunity to jump in the Pepsi Invitational, wouldn't you? That's an honor to be in that. They picked eight guys out of the entire United States and I was one of them."
So the best prep pole vaulter in the country will leave San Marcos having represented the Royals in all of two meets, only one of them as a vaulter. In that one, the Easter Relays at UC Santa Barbara in March, there was a he's-lucky-to-walk-away-from-that crash and a no-height. Then, April 28, he ran the anchor leg in the 440 relay against Hueneme. He took the baton leading by two steps and lost by three.