Compared to the sprinters, who were cheered by a grandstand full of people, the pole vaulters seemed devoid of glamour. Although their event looked spectacular and perilous, they performed almost unnoticed at the end of the field at Hanford Rantz Stadium in Cerritos.
But one young man, who brandished a world-class 16 1/2-foot pole and ran like the wind, was a sight to see during the San Gabriel Valley League meet last Friday night.
Jason Henlon, a Lynwood High School junior, pounded down the runway, planted the pole and took off. He rocked back as the pole bent, then shot into the black sky, his 6-foot-2 body clearing the crossbar at 14 feet. He landed safely on his back in the blue foam pit.
That was easily the meet's best mark, although it was a foot below Henlon's best vault. He is one of five vaulters in the state who have cleared 15 feet this season; the highest mark is 15 feet 1 inch.
"He's just incredible," said Brian Yokoyama, an assistant track coach and Henlon's vaulting tutor at Lynwood High.
Henlon's achievements are considered all the more astonishing because he seriously took up the event only recently. As a freshman, captivated by how spies catapulted over buildings in old movies, he competed with a straight pole. He did not vault as a sophomore, and it was not until Yokoyama arrived this season that Henlon was introduced to a flexible fiberglass pole.
"I heard we had a pole vault coach, so I came out," said Henlon, 16. "I'm glad I did."
Unlike other vaulters, Henlon said he does not experience euphoria at a vault's apex. "I just like breaking my records," he said.
In his second meet, Henlon vaulted 13-1 to break the Lynwood High record. In just two months he has mastered Yokoyama's lessons in technique.
"He picks things up so fast, he's very intelligent," said Yokoyama, only 19 himself and a vaulter at Pasadena City College. "I have to be one of the luckiest coaches to have found a kid with that much talent."
The two have become close. "He's my coach but he's like one of my friends," Henlon said. "I can talk to him about anything."
Yokoyama foresees Henlon clearing 17 feet--the state and CIF Southern Section record is 17-1--next year and becoming a candidate for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. "If he goes to the right college and has a real good coach he can make it," Yokoyama predicted.
Henlon also has impressed Ron Morris, a silver medalist in the pole vault at the 1960 Olympics and now a teacher at Cal State Los Angeles.
"The kid's a real comer," said Morris, who likes Henlon's speed and strength. "He may have a crack at winning the state meet. Usually you get a kid who's daring but doesn't have a whole lot of speed--the fastest kids are used as sprinters."
Besides combining the attributes of a sprinter, gymnast and weightlifter, Henlon takes a fearless approach to an event other athletes shy from.
"You can vault him into a 10 m.p.h. wind and it doesn't bother him," Yokoyama said. "That normally causes a pole vaulter to break down."
Henlon also long-jumps for the Knights, is a wide receiver on the football team and a guard on the basketball team. Basketball is his favorite sport, but vaulting has a peculiar pressure that appeals to him: "You only get three chances to go over the bar. In basketball, you get lots of chances to make a basket."
Could Henlon become the pole vaulting star the United States, which has been dominated in the event by the Soviet Union and France, is looking for?
"If he keeps improving, he could eventually be our brightest light," Morris said. "There's not a lot of great young talent now."
The former vaulter said interest in the event in the United States is not as high as it used to be. A concern about liability and costs--a pole is more than $200 and a landing pit a minimum of $4,000--has threatened the event. Some leagues in California, worried about lawsuits that could result from injuries, have eliminated it.
"I think it's pretty safe," Morris said. "There was more danger when the pits weren't as large."
A track meet takes a long time. The pole vault competition started last Friday at 5 p.m. and was still going close to 8, after the running events were over and much of the crowd had left.
Because he was the class of the field, Henlon chose not to compete at the outset while the others struggled with heights that ranged from 10 to 12 feet.
By the time most of the vaulters had been eliminated, it was dark and cold. Henlon took off his sweat suit and ran twice around the field.
His moment, finally, was imminent, although few would witness it.
But he did not envy the runners, despite the attention they attracted.
"They are in a lot of events, so they get a lot of medals and I only get one," he said. "But all of my medals, except one, are gold, so it doesn't bother me."
Coach Kept at a Distance