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Obituaries

Cornelius Warmerdam, 86; Set Records in Pole-Vaulting

November 15, 2001|JOHN ORTEGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cornelius "Dutch" Warmerdam, the most dominant pole vaulter in history, has died. He was 86.

Warmerdam, the first man to clear 15 feet in the pole vault, died Tuesday at Willow Creek Nursing Home in Clovis. He had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease since 1990.

Warmerdam competed during an era when poles were made of bamboo and landing pits were piles of wood shavings. His world outdoor record of 15 feet, 7 3/4 inches in 1942 lasted 15 years, and his world indoor record of 15 feet, 8 1/2 inches in 1943 stood for 16.

When he retired from competition, Warmerdam had recorded the 43 highest vaults of all time. His record of achievement would hold for decades. At the end of the 1997 season, Sergei Bubka, the five-time world champion pole vaulter from Ukraine, had the 23 highest vaults.

No other man cleared 15 feet until 1951, but Warmerdam had done it 43 times when he retired after the 1944 season.

The third son of a father who emigrated from the Netherlands, Warmerdam was an unassuming and bright youngster.

The Long Beach native tied for third in the pole vault in the 1932 state high school track and field championships, but no four-year college offered him an athletic scholarship.

He worked on his father's 40-acre farm picking peaches and apricots for the next year and a half before a sporting goods salesman, tipped off by the high school track coach, watched Warmerdam clear a crossbar more than twice his 6-foot height while vaulting alongside a spinach patch.

The salesman told Fresno State University Coach Flint Hanner about what he saw, and Warmerdam began vaulting for Fresno State in spring 1934.

Warmerdam raised his career best to 13 feet, 6 inches that season before clearing 14 feet, 1 7/8 in 1935--less than five inches off the world record--and 14 feet, 2 7/8 inches in 1936.

He didn't advance to the 1936 Olympic trials, but he raised his best to 14 feet, 4 inches in 1937 and won the Pan American Games in Dallas that year.

He won the first of six Amateur Athletic Union titles in 1938 and set a world indoor record of 14 feet, 6 1/8 inches in 1939, but his weight soared to 180 pounds in early 1940 when he was teaching history and geometry at the high school level.

With his weight down to 170 pounds, he cleared 14 feet, 4 inches in a meet at Stanford before cracking the historic 15-foot barrier in a meet at UC Berkeley on April 13, 1940.

Warmerdam's effort broke the world record by one inch, but as Cordner Nelson wrote in his book "Track and Field: The Great Ones," "In one marvelous second over that crossbar came his transition from a good vaulter to world record holder."

Warmerdam raised the record to 15 feet, 1 1/8 inch in the 1940 AAU championships in Fresno before clearing 15 feet, 2 5/8 in a meet at Stanford in 1941. He raised the record to 15 feet, 4 1/4 inches and then to 15 feet, 5 3/4 in the Compton Invitational two months later.

He set six world records--four indoors and two outdoors--in 1942 and won the Sullivan Award as the nation's outstanding amateur athlete.

He turned in the finest performance of his career in March 1943 when he cleared a world indoor record of 15 feet, 8 1/2 inches in the Chicago Relays before missing three times at 16 feet, 1/2 inch.

Warmerdam cleared 15 feet nine times during the 1943 outdoor season, but was able to do it only once in 1944 when his duties as a Navy lieutenant stationed at Monmouth College in Illinois limited his training.

Warmerdam, who was an assistant track coach at Fresno State from 1947 to 1960 and the head coach from 1961 to 1980, never competed in the Olympic Games because World War II forced the cancellation of the Games in 1940 and 1944.

That didn't diminish his accomplishments in the eyes of fellow pole vaulters such as Rob Richards, the second man to clear 15 feet and the 1952 and 1956 Olympic champion.

"Warmerdam was part sprinter, part shock-absorber, part acrobat and part strongman," Richards once said.

Warmerdam is survived by his wife, Juanita; five children; 20 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

The funeral will be at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Anthony's Catholic Church in Fresno.

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