At age 32, Earl Bell is the dean of U. S. pole vaulters. The man who ranked third in the world as an Arkansas State sophomore in 1975, set a world record of 18-7 in 1976 and placed sixth at the Olympic Games in Montreal that same summer, has seen a pit full of pole vaulters come and go.
But rarely has he seen a vaulter as consistently good in major meets as Mike Tully, his friend and sometimes training partner.
"Some vaulters are faster than Mike. Some vaulters are stronger than Mike. However, there are very few vaulters who prepare as well for a major competition as he does," Bell has said of Tully.
They were teammates on the 1984 U. S. Olympic team, and Bell and Tully believed they had an excellent chance of making this year's team as well. Track & Field News agreed, predicting they would finish 1-2 at the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis.
Bell, who tied for third in the 1984 Games, did his part, clearing 19 feet to finish second in last week's Trials. But Tully missed one attempt at his opening height of 18-4 and withdrew from the competition with an injured right calf, an injury that has dogged him all year.
He initially hurt the leg in February, but still cleared a personal best of 19-2 earlier this season before aggravating the calf in the Pepsi Invitational at UCLA in June.
Training time became therapy time as he nursed the injury, which has eluded precise diagnosis. The muscle might be strained or he might have a pinched nerve.
But the bottom line was that it pinched him from the field at the Trials.
"It felt like it pulled again on the first jump," said Tully, the 1984 Olympic silver medalist. "And I didn't feel like wrecking the rest of my vaulting career and life by jumping again. You can't jump on one leg. I just couldn't get any speed on the runway."
Although Tully qualified at last week's preliminaries with a 17-7 3/4 effort on his third and final attempt, he knew his chances of making the U. S. team were slim.
"It would have taken a miracle to make it," said Tully, who was competing in his fourth Olympic Trials. "I figured I only had two or three good jumps in me."
As it turned out, he had none. Sitting at home in Encino and watching the Olympics on television will be a difficult assignment.
"I feel like I'm the best guy in the U. S.," he said. "But I never got a chance to prove it. It's like you're on deck with the bases loaded and they don't let you bat."
Typically, Tully has shone brightest in the glare of high-pressure meets, winning World Cup titles in 1977 and '79 and setting a U. S. record of 19-1 to win the Olympic Trials in 1984. He was also crowned The Athletics Congress champion three times, the latest win coming in 1986.
Though he'll turn 32 in October, Tully has no intentions of retiring. He has ranked among the top 10 in the world in nine of the previous 13 years and hopes to represent the United States in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
Said Tully: "I'm having too much fun and I still feel like I can improve."