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Older--but Determined as Ever : Champion Pole Vaulter Would Like to Fly High Again

August 14, 1986|BRIAN LANDMAN | Times Staff Writer

Bob Seagren, who won the gold medal in the pole vault in the 1968 Olympic Games and the silver in the 1972 Games, grimaced and gently massaged his back when he recalled his final vault.

"The last time I jumped was for a commercial for the United Bank of Denver about 10 years ago," Seagren said. "I didn't know if I was going to get over the bar at all, but I cleared 16 feet five times.

"But when I woke up the next morning, I felt like I was beat up in an alley somewhere. My back hurt. My rib cage hurt. I could barely walk. I couldn't believe how sore I was."

Still, the former Pomona High School and USC standout, who set six world records and won four National Collegiate Athletic Assn. championships from 1966 to 1972, would like to be vaulting today.

Bubka 'in Class by Himself'

"I wish I was in my prime now," said Seagren, who last competed in 1976, after a four-year stint in a short-lived professional track and field circuit. "I always enjoyed competing against the best, and Sergei Bubka is the best. He's in a class by himself."

Bubka of the Soviet Union has broken the world record six times in the last two years, most recently vaulting 19 feet, 8 3/4 inches at the Goodwill Games in Moscow. In Bubka's streak, he has added 6 1/2 inches to the world mark he set in 1984.

To put that feat in some perspective, when Seagren broke his own world record of 18-4 with a vault of 18-5 1/2 at the 1972 Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., it took nine more years before Thierry Vigneron of France added 6 3/4 inches to the mark.

"He could break 20 feet anytime he wants," Seagren said. "But every time he breaks the record, he gets perks, so he's smart doing it a little at a time."

In Seagren's day, 20 feet was perceived as an unattainable goal, even with state-of-the art equipment such as his Cata-Pole 550, better known as the "green pole," which he used at the U. S. Trials.

Credits New Grip

That pole subsequently was banned at the Games, probably costing Seagren a second gold medal as East Germany's Wolfgang Nordwig won the event with a vault of 18 feet, 1/2 inch.

But Seagren said that a new technique, not new equipment, is the key to Bubka's new heights.

"These guys today are gripping the pole two feet higher than I did," he said. "That was something we never tried. If I had held it like that, I think it would have broken and I would've gotten five feet off the ground."

Seagren doubted that anyone will seriously challenge Bubka, especially an American.

"Americans are too temperamental. They have to have absolutely perfect conditions because we compete in ideal conditions here in the United States all the time, so we can't help but be spoiled.

"But Bubka is so strong. A head wind doesn't slow him down. Nothing bothers him."

Vaulting 'Needs Rivalry'

What about Texan Billy Olson?

"Olson is good, but in head-to-head confrontations, it's never any contest," Seagren said.

And he said that is unfortunate for track and field.

"It needs a rivalry to keep the interest up," he said. "It needs a 'who's going to win today' situation. But a Bubka or an Ed Moses is so dominant that it gets a little boring watching them win all the time."

Although Seagren, who is three months shy of his 40th birthday, knows he can't just wipe the cobwebs off his pole and start vaulting in his backyard like he did as a youngster, he looks like he could.

Except for a shorter hair style, he closely resembles the picture that graced the Feb. 20, 1967 cover of Sports Illustrated. He still has the boyish face, the sandy brown hair and the baby-blue eyes that twinkle whenever he talks about competing, let alone when he is actually in a competitive setting.

TV Show Host

"I try to stay in pretty good shape," he said. "And I like to keep busy."

Up until about a month ago, Seagren was the host of "P. M. Magazine's" national show for almost three seasons and is still the host of the television show's local edition.

He has a recurring role as a TV reporter on "Dynasty," owns his own restaurant in Pasadena and, until recently, was a vice president for marketing for Puma.

The Westwood resident runs every day, frequently rides a bicycle and participates in numerous athletic charity functions, such as the first Santa Monica Girls Club tennis tournament July 12 at Lincoln Park in Santa Monica.

"My philosophy is that I've been very lucky, and if I can help people a little less fortunate, I'll do it," he said. "And besides, they're a lot of fun. I'm a people-person and you get to meet a lot of people at these things."

Still Intense Competitor

But even at a strictly fun event, the intense competitor inside him surfaces.

While playing tennis in the Girls Club tournament, he could be heard yelling after an errant shot, "Oh Bob. I can't believe you missed that."

And when he hit a passing shot, he would flash a sly grin reminiscent of the ones seen while he sat on the mat after an impressive vault.

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