Vitaly Petrov, who has become the most prominent pole vaulting coach in the Soviet Union, remembers well his first meeting with Vasily Bubka.
"When he came to the school and said he wanted to become a pole vaulter, I told him to stay out of track and field," Petrov said of that morning in 1975 when Bubka applied to the sports institute in Voroshilovgrad, a city on the southeastern border of the Ukraine.
"He was 14, which is a rather late age to begin pole vaulting," Petrov said through an interpreter during an interview last weekend in Chicago. "Besides, his physical abilities were such that it didn't encourage me to take him seriously.
"You see, he did not seem to have any of the physical abilities for pole vaulting. I told him to try acting or singing or shooting. But then he said he was Sergei's brother.
"I said, 'Why didn't you say so? Come in.' "
A year earlier, Sergei Bubka had been persuaded to enter the sports institute by a neighbor who made pole vaulting sound like a daring and challenging way to spend afternoons after school.
Petrov had no doubts about Sergei's potential. Even though he was only 10, he already was stronger and more coordinated than many older boys, including his brother. Sergei was a natural.
"One could see at first glance that, physically, he was very good," Petrov said. "He had good coordination and was good emotionally. What still had to be determined was whether he was serious as an athlete. Sergei was very serious."
Sergei's first recorded height in 1975 was 8 feet 10 inches, but he improved so dramatically that Petrov had difficulty staying ahead of his precocious student.
"Sergei has very often performed techniques even better than he was taught," Petrov said. "He had a creative approach.
"It's as if you teach phonetics or grammar. In grading the pupil, you feel he does better than expected. So when you start the next lesson, you give him a more challenging assignment than you would an ordinary student. But that also forces the teacher to be more creative.
"He had one pattern of run-up (approach). I didn't like it. I told him to do it a different way. He began to practice the run-up that morning and came again in the evening to do more. In one day, it already was as if he had always used that pattern of run-up."
Between the ages of 13 and 14, Sergei increased the height of his vaults from 11-9 3/4 to 14-5. For the next four years, he managed to stay ahead of his age, clearing 15-9 when he was 15, 16-8 3/4 when he was 16, 17-8 1/2 when he was 17 and 18-2 1/2 when he was 18.
But even though his results were impressive, he had made little impression outside the Soviet Union.
In his only international competition before 1983, he finished seventh in the 1981 European junior championships with a disappointing jump of 16-4 3/4.
He has seldom been disappointed since.
In the 1983 world championships at Helsinki, Bubka stunned a field that included four 19-foot vaulters by winning the gold medal with a personal record 18-8.
He has only gone up from there.
In 1984, he broke the world indoor record three times, once in The Times Indoor Games at the Forum, and the world outdoor record four times.
The only pole vaulter who has ever had a better year was Norway's Charles Hoff, who broke the world indoor record 10 times in 1926, the final time at 13-8. Hoff also broke the world record four times outdoors.
American Bob Seagren is the only other vaulter who has broken the world record 14 times, eight indoors and six outdoors, in the late '60s and early '70s. American Billy Olson has not broken a world record outdoors but has broken the world indoor mark 11 times, four times since Dec. 28. He holds the current indoor record of 19-5 1/2.
That is the record that Bubka has come to the United States this winter to challenge. After competing last weekend in New York and Rosemont, Ill., he will continue his tour Friday night in The Times/GTE Indoor Games at the Forum and Sunday afternoon in the Michelob Invitational at San Diego's Sports Arena before returning to New York for the Mobil/TAC indoor championships Feb. 28.
Bubka and Olson are scheduled to vault in all three of the remaining meets. Also entered is Vasily, Bubka's brother, who despite the physical limitations he displayed as a teen-ager jumped 19-2 last year, higher than any other Soviet vaulter other than Sergei. One other Soviet, Konstantin Volkov, has jumped as high.
The next time Sergei sets a world record, it will be his 11th since January of 1984. Unless Olson sets another record before Bubka, they will be tied. Olson is 27, Bubka 22.
Tom Jennings, who manages the Pacific Coast Club, which includes American vaulters Olson, Earl Bell and Brad Pursley, is impressed as much by Bubka's style as by his results.