Skip to main content
Original Issue

Billy Cracks The Vault

Records are falling as Billy Olson leads a U.S. resurgence in an event it used to dominate—pole vaulting

Having finished an afternoon workout with his former teammates at Abilene Christian University, Billy Olson walks out of the Elmer Gray Stadium with a first-time visitor to Abilene. Pausing, they look around at the parched flat-lands of western Texas. With a 16'5" fiber-glass pole in his hands, Olson probably could vault over everything that grows or grazes between Dallas and Odessa, but without his Swiss-made vaulting glasses on he can't tell if he's staring at a stand of pecan trees or the Swiss Alps. He's almost as helpless as he was three years ago when the lenses of his photosensitive spectacles suddenly turned black while he was competing on the European circuit, and he very briefly became sort of a Ray Charles of vaulting. "Not a whole lot to see, is there?" he finally says. This calls to mind the recent words of his best friend and training partner, Brad Pursley: "Olse, you are blinder than a dang old bat."

There is in fact plenty to see in Abilene this winter, and at indoor track meets from Ottawa to San Diego, too. It's Olson himself, the drawling, amiable 24-year-old who has set six indoor world records in the last 13 months and led a U.S. resurgence in the pole vault. He's already raised the indoor mark from 18'8¼" to 18'10¾"—his latest record coming two weeks ago at the Sunkist meet in Los Angeles—and he could well become history's first indoor 19-footer this season. "I know 19 is in me," he says. "It's just a matter of when and where." For an instant it looked as if that time had come at the Millrose Games last Friday, when Olson tipped the bar off at 19'¼" after winning the vault at 18'6¾".

Olson's height (6'2"), speed (10.5 for 100 meters), excellent technique and upper-body strength make him a nearly ideal vaulter. Aside from his vision, his only problems are a left hamstring that sometimes tightens up, a left arm with limited flexibility and allergies that often force him to carry an inhaler and make him look rheumy-eyed. "I'm allergic to dust, pollen, cats, mold and, most of all, cold," he says.

When competing, Olson is apparently oblivious to pressure. At the Sunkist meet he sipped black coffee and lounged back on the vault pad before his record jump, seemingly preparing himself for a catnap rather than a try at a record height. And he likes nothing better than to exchange jokes with Pursley on the runway right before a big jump. At last year's Jack-in-the-Box meet in San Diego, for example, Olson was about to attempt a then world-record 18'9½" when Pursley came up and whispered, "If you make this, I'll take my shorts off and run around the track." Thus motivated, Olson of course cleared on his second attempt. "But Pursley was gone in a flash. I looked everywhere," Olson grumbles.

To understand how far American pole vaulting had slipped before Olson attained the world's No. 1 ranking last year, check the record book: U.S. vaulters not only broke the 15-, 16-and 17-foot barriers (Cornelius Warmerdam, bamboo pole, 1940; John Uelses, fiber glass, 1962; and John Pennel, fiber glass, 1963, respectively) but won every Olympic gold medal from the start of the modern Games in 1896 through 1968 and held the world's No. 1 ranking every year through 1969. Since then, however, the U.S. hasn't won an Olympic gold in vaulting, and only two Americans besides Olson have ranked first in the world, Steve Smith in 1973 and Dave Roberts in 1976. When the 18-foot mark fell in 1970, the historic vaulter was a Greek, Chris Papanicolaou; at 19 feet it was Thierry Vigneron of France, whose June 1981 jump of 19'¼" was followed six days later by the current world outdoor record of 19'¾" by Vladimir Polyakov of the Soviet Union. That same year, 1981, only one American, Earl Bell, made the world's top 10, placing sixth. As if that weren't humbling enough, the U.S. also lost its top vaulter of 1980, Oregon's Tom Hintnaus, to fashion designer Calvin Klein, who saw Hintnaus jogging on the street one day and promptly signed the vaulter to a contract to model his line of men's bikini briefs.

Last year, however, the U.S. vaulters rebounded, with Olson assuming the world's No. 1 position, Indiana junior Dave Volz (who raised the American outdoor mark twice, to 18'10¼") placing second, and Dan Ripley ranking sixth. "Now it's like the old days," says Ripley, 29, who set five world indoor records himself between 1975 and 1979. Says Volz, "Nineteen isn't the barrier some folks make it out to be. I expect us to reach 19'6"." Even Hintnaus, whose picture adorns a billboard in New York's Times Square, has let vaulting come between him and his Calvins and is in serious training again.

Aside from Olson and Pursley, who are harder to separate than hair and gum, the most promising of the young U.S. vaulters are Volz and Oklahoma State sophomore Joe Dial. Volz, who sat out all of January after minor ankle surgery, holds the American junior record of 18'3¼", and Dial the national high school mark of 18'1¼". And in the finest tradition of vaulting, each seems to swing on slightly loose hinges.

Volz is a curious combination of reticence and daring, unafraid to leap brashly off catwalks 55 feet high in Indiana's field house but laconic even with his good friends. A burly 5'11" and 185 pounds, Volz has tremendous upper-body strength. "He's an animal," says Olson. "He goes down that runway so hard he's almost out of control."

Volz also has such quick reactions that he has popularized "Volzing." If he hits the crossbar on a vault, he will reach out with his left hand, grab the bar and steady it on the standards while still suspended in midair. On his first American record jump last summer, a leap of 18'9¾" at Durham, N.C., Volz bent the crossbar about a foot downward as his body scraped over it, yet kept it from falling with a deft left. So far, there's nothing in the rule book to penalize such "saved" jumps, but that could change. " 'Volzing' ruins the event," says Bell. "If you miss. you should miss."

Volz's versatility—he had high school marks of 6'8" in the high jump, 23'1¾" in the long jump and 14.25 in the 110-meter hurdles—makes him a possible Olympic decathlete in 1988. Around Bloomington, Volz is famous for cliff-diving into the area's water-filled limestone quarries from as high as 100 feet, but he has at least once refused to try cliff-climbing. "The water may tear an arm off," he says, "but solid ground'll tear everything off."

Dial, from Marlow, Okla., is second only to the master himself at Volzing and is perhaps the most easily identifiable vaulter at a meet. "Joe always smells like a grease monkey," says Bell. While other vaulters improve their grip on the pole by using two-sided tape and either chalk or lighter fluid (which makes the glue on the tape gummy), Dial treats his grip with gasket sealer.

Dial also stands out physically. "Joe's a little bitty skinny old kid," says Olson. "Maybe 5'8", 5'9". Doesn't have a muscle. Doesn't know what a muscle is." In fact, Dial weighs only 138 pounds yet is able to handle a 175-pound-test pole because he vaults in a European style, pushing harder into the pole with his left (lower) arm at takeoff and thereby putting extra arc into it for extra spring.

Dial, whose jump of 18'4¾" in Oklahoma City two weeks ago makes him the No. 2 U.S. vaulter so far this indoor season, learned the sport from his father, Earl Dean, a disabled welder who serves as Oklahoma State's unpaid vaulting coach. "Everybody in my family can vault," says Joe, "except one of my brothers, who got scared of it one time when the standard fell and almost chopped his ear off." Earl Dean Dial rigged up all manner of poles and pits for young Joe, who began vaulting when he was 5 and often worked out three times a day. "We'd sand poles down, tape 'em all up, put buckshot in the end, turn 'em upside down, you name it," recalls Joe. His only bad experience with the event came last summer, his first in Europe, when his sponsoring club deserted him and his vaulting rhythm did, too. "Some of the American vaulters told me, 'You ain't worth a crap. You ought to go home,' " says Dial. "That pretty well psyched me up for this year."

Pursley and Olson keep each other pumped up 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. "We can't do anything without making it a competition, putting down a little side bet," says Pursley, who grew up on a 250-acre wheat farm in Merkel, Texas, just 15 miles from Olson and ACU. "Of course, I kick Billy like a dog every time."

"Except when I beat you like a drum, which is always," answers Olson.

The rivalry, which carries over into weight, gymnastics and actual vaulting workouts, has made better jumpers out of them both but has especially benefited Pursley. He came to Abilene Christian in 1978 as a 14' high school vaulter, yet improved to 17' in his first year at the school, to 18'½" in 1980 and to 18'5½" last year. "Brad might, if not this year then next year, be the best vaulter around," says Bell. "He's just a natural athlete. He was a good football player when he was young. He's good at everything, and real likable. He's the kind of guy you'd like to see win the gold medal in '84. He might do it, too. If I had to pick now, I guess I'd pick him."

Surprisingly, Abilene Christian, a small (enrollment: 4,500) Church of Christ-affiliated school whose most famous athlete is 1956 Olympic gold medal sprinter Bobby Morrow, has become the nation's No. 1 collegiate pole-vaulting power. This season it has an unprecedented three 18-foot vaulters on the team (Pursley, Tim Bright and Dale Jenkins) besides Olson, whose collegiate eligibility ended in 1982. ACU Coach Don Hood himself was only a 10'6" vaulter back in the 1940s, but he enjoyed working with his coach at Tulare (Calif.) Union High, Virgil Jackson, who was a pioneer of the fiber-glass pole. "Brad and Billy have gotten to the level now," says Hood, "where all I'm really concerned with is increasing their strength and speed, which to me are synonymous. If you build strength, you build speed."

With that in mind, Olson and Pursley lifted weights fanatically in the off-season. "Crazy weights, unbelievable weights," says Olson, who added eight pounds of muscle. Ironically, injuries suffered in September 1980 that had threatened to end Olson's career actually helped his training. He shattered his left wrist and dislocated his elbow in a training fall. Those injuries prevented Olson, who had cleared 18'7½" that year, from vaulting at all indoors in 1981 and gave him a left arm he can't twist enough to handle barbells. When he began lifting with dumbbells, he was pleased to find that they allowed him to increase strength more rapidly than he ever had with barbells.

Besides, Olson may have done enough barbell work by the age of 10 to last him a lifetime. His father, Bill Olson Sr., who at the time was the Abilene city personnel director, started him lifting on the living-room rug when he was 5. "Then he'd send me out to do chin-ups on these big old monkey bars in the back," says Billy. "Every time company came over he'd drag them out and bet them on how many chins I could do. They'd guess about 10 and I'd do about 60. I thought that's where my future lay for a long time: pro chinning."

While at Abilene High Olson was a troublemaker with a seemingly dim future, traveling with a fast crowd. He played some golf, but only when a friend introduced him to vaulting the summer before his junior year did he begin to take athletics seriously. "I had been a total nobody all my life," he says. "My dad said I was a bum and I probably was. It was just that I was always so small. In ninth grade I was 5'6" and 90 pounds. When I graduated I was 6'2" and 135, which isn't much better." By that time, however, Olson had broken the Texas state high school record with a vault of 15'10".

He had also met Pursley. "I remember the first time I saw him," says Pursley. "It was at a high school basketball game and a friend pointed him out. I'd heard about his vaulting, so I couldn't believe my eyes. I saw this bony, skinny guy with hair halfway down his back, shirttail all untucked. He looked like a dadgum full-fledged drunk."

"Meeting you was the worst day of my life," answers Olson. "If I hadn't unearthed your talent I wouldn't have to worry about almost anybody in these meets." But oh, how boring life would be. Olson and Purvey are always out golfing or waterskiing or fishing or riding their motorcycles.

More often they're arguing. They argue about whether Olson's younger sister, Donna, who was named "Abilene's Miss 10" a few years ago, is prettier than Bo Derek. "She is," says Olson, "and my older sister's even perrtier." They argue about their achievements. "I'm the only vaulter around who's never lost to the Russians," says Olson.

"World Cup, buddy. Volkov dusted you off by a foot."

"I meant dual meets."

At one time they both had shows on the school radio station, KACU, which plays Top 40 music. The two would do the news on each other's shows and carry out sabotage whenever possible. Pursley's forte was to kick the turntable just as Olson began a song. "And now, here is the No. 1 hit this week, grzzzz!"

Olson's girl friend of three years, former ACU student Suzanne Levy, has toned down the wildness that Olson evidenced both in high school and a semester spent at Baylor at the start of his college career. ("Our vault practice was running two miles a day," says Olson. "By Christmas break I'd forgotten how to plant a pole.") She brought him into the Church of Christ and together they direct a Bible study group of ninth-graders each Wednesday night. Olson is even looking ahead to a more stable, long-term profession than pole vaulting: He wants to join SOS Bail Bond, a business established by his father and professional wrestler Don (The Lawman) Slatton.

Before doing so, however, he will finish the indoor circuit and, he hopes, become the first American to clear 19 feet. "If I can be the first 19 indoors, that'll be something to remember," says Olson. "But hopefully I'll get enough records along the way that they'll remember me even if I don't." He needn't worry; he's already done his bit to bail out the U.S.'s reputation in the pole vault.


Look, Ma, I'm No. 1! Olson has raised the indoor mark to 18'10¾", and he's not done.


Olson makes a happy landing in the Millrose Games.


Volz's lightning reactions allowed him to replace a falling bar and set a U.S. mark.


Hood demonstrates vaulting contortions to Olson and his good ol' buddy Pursley (right).


Dial, 5'8" and 138 pounds, uses technique and gasket cement to reach record range.