Olympic Dream Has Olson Going Again : 'There's Gotta Be a Purpose for What Happened Last Year,' He Says

Times Staff Writer

On his first attempt in last year's Michelob Invitational indoor track meet, pole vaulter Billy Olson landed badly and tore ligaments in his right foot.

Unknown to him at the time, it was the beginning of a succession of injuries that would keep him out of the Olympics and mar his dream of cashing in on an illustrious career.

By missing the Olympics he yielded his position as the most accomplished American vaulter. Instead of possibly seeing his face on a cereal box, Olson saw both his self esteem and his earning power decline.

Although his hopes of reaping a commercial bonanza from the Olympics may have been unrealistic all along, Olson is optimistic about his chances of recapturing his past brilliance and establishing another world record, which would be his eighth.

After an autumn of golf and water skiing, he is healthy again, in body, outlook and vaulting form. But realistically he is a world record away from restoring his earning potential, which has dropped by 30 to 50% per meet from a year ago.

Before Friday's Michelob meet at the Sports Arena, Olson believed he was getting close to challenging his American indoor record of 19-.

He faced a field of vaulters that includes Olympic silver medalist Mike Tully and bronze medalist Earl Bell.

Olson, who thinks a vault of 19-6 is possible before he retires, came away from last year's experience wiser in several respects. He knows he might not have grown rich even if he had won the Olympic gold. And he has learned he must temper his love for indoor vaulting, which got him into trouble last season.

"I had a tremendous letdown when I didn't make the Olympics," Olson said. "For many years I was either the best or second-best vaulter in the world, and I was always the favorite in a meet.

"But I don't feel any animosity (toward the Olympic experience). It was a hardship and maybe I needed it. If I had won the gold I would have retired and tried to parlay it into commercial opportunities. But maybe I was meant to jump more. For the last few years I felt I had to vault. Now I want to. I had forgotten how good it was to be doing something I love."

Pushing too hard in quest of material gain caused Olson more grief than he could have imagined. Like other athletes, he said he felt programmed to shoot for an Olympic gold medal, with the expectation of becoming an instant hero. He saw the Olympics as the ultimate in opening doors to fame and riches.

In retrospect, his anticipation of wealth may have been as misguided as it was injurious. A source with knowledge of track high finance said he doubted Olson would have become a millionaire even if he had been an Olympic smash.

"Some athletes have kidded themselves about the market," the source said. "(Billy) probably wouldn't have found great riches."

Olson isn't so sure, either.

"The American public may have been polluted with Olympic athletes," he said. "Mary Lou Retton seems about the only gold medalist who really hit it big."

But there is no question that the dream of big money caused Olson to push himself too hard.

"I never felt so much pressure in my life," Olson said. "I think I am as good under pressure as anyone in my sport. I have made more critical jumps on the third bar than anyone. But I never felt the kind of pressure I did leading up to the Olympic trials last spring."

Olson competed in 10 indoor meets, culminating in his injury in San Diego. Afterward, he took a month off to recuperate. On his first day back in training, he reinjured his foot and was forced to endure another six-week layoff.

Doctors thought his problem was related to the Achilles tendon. It wasn't until bonescans were done later in the summer that the injury was diagnosed as a stress fracture at the rear of the right ankle.

Olson knew he was in trouble when he again resumed training for the Olympic trials in late spring. The trials were less than six weeks away and he had barely been able to work out for nearly three months.

"I always believed I had the ability to pull it out, no matter what the situation," he said. "I had been doing a lot of weight lifting, and I was strong going into the trials. But I had not been able to do much vaulting, and on top of that I was nervous, which is very unusual for me."

Olson did his best, but the pain in his feet, combined with the pressure, precluded his making the U.S. Olympic team.

Then came the post-Olympic letdown.

Through the late summer and into the fall, he felt he was at a crossroads. He questioned whether he would ever resume vaulting.

He was taking time off to let his injuries heal, and to beat the feeling of career burnout. It was his first real vacation from vaulting in five years.

The layoff was precisely what he needed, as it turned out.

By October, he was feeling much better and had decided that he had not lost his desire to jump again. "My confidence was shaken the first couple of weeks of the indoor season, because I felt rusty," he said. "I wondered if I still had it. I was experiencing some hamstring problems and I just wasn't back in a groove.

"But in the last few weeks I have been running faster and going higher. I'm not just squeaking over the bar anymore. I think I may be on the verge of a breakthrough."

That breakthrough could come as soon as Friday night, according to Olson.

A faster runway could give him a better approach and maybe give him that extra six inches needed to clear 19 feet.

Olson said a measure of his progress is his grip, which is four or five inches higher than it was at the start of the indoor season. Also, he is working with a larger, heavier pole, which can increase his height.

Olson is reluctant to venture a guess as to how high he could go one day. Earlier in his career he forecast 18 feet, then later 19 feet. He surpassed those goals without feeling he had exhausted all the possibilities.

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