Pole Vaulters Improving by Leaps and Bounds : Mike Tully, Who Has Cleared 19-1, Says New Techniques Are Responsible

Times Staff Writer

It has been said that pole vaulting can be traced to Europe in the 16th Century. In the 1800s, the British were using long wooden poles to vault stone walls so they could keep up with their hunting dogs.

Pole vaulter Mike Tully says, however, that vaulting is a relatively new thing, and that there are new techniques to be learned every day.

According to Tully, the event took on a whole new dimension with the advent of the fiberglass pole in the early 1960s, replacing the bamboo and aluminum poles of another era.

“It’s a different event now,” said Tully, the silver medalist in the 1984 Olympic Games and a knowledgeable technician in the art of vaulting. “Everything you do is different.”


In 33 years the world record has progressed from Cornelius Warmerdam’s vault of 15 feet 7 3/4 inches in 1942 to 19-5 3/4, the record held by Sergei Bubka of the Soviet Union.

Nineteen feet was once regarded as a ceiling for the pole vault. Not anymore. There are 10 vaulters, Tully among them, who have cleared 19 feet.

Is 20 feet possible? Are there more techniques to be learned to lift vaulters even higher? Tully thinks so.

“One athlete will be doing something very well and other athletes around the world will try to pick it up,” he said. “Bubka is an example. Why is he holding so high on the pole?


“We’ve timed Bubka on the last 50 feet of the runway and he’s not much faster than everybody else. What is he doing to jump higher?”

Tully concludes that Bubka has advanced the event still another step by holding high on the pole.

“I heard that when he made his record jump, he was holding at 16-10. Of course, the higher you hold, the more fine tuned the timing is. There is less margin for error.

“I’ve held at 16-6 in a few meets this year, which is really good. I remember that in 1978, when I vaulted 18-8 3/4, I was holding at 15-8. If I can hold at 16-6 and do the same thing I did when I was holding at 15-8, you can add the inches up.


“I held at 16-6 when I vaulted 19-1 (an American record at the time) last year in Eugene, which is basically four inches lower than Bubka jumped, and he held four inches higher on the pole.”

So Tully makes the point that the higher you hold the pole, if physically possible, the higher you will vault.

“The higher you hold on the pole, the less it takes to move forward to get vertical where you can land in the pit,” Tully said. “That’s what the Russians stress. They practice holding high.”

Tully, 28, says that he’s in the best shape of his career. The season is just getting under way, considering that he’ll be vaulting throughout the summer and possibly in World Cup competition next October in Canberra, Australia.


He has already cleared 18-10 3/4 and 18-10, and would have gone higher on one occasion, he said, if his legs hadn’t cramped on him.

Tully will vault tonight in the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, and will be part of a select field in the ARCO-Coliseum meet here June 8.

Tully has lost his American record to Joe Dial of Oklahoma State. Dial recently vaulted 19-1 1/2 and 19-2 in successive weeks in meets in Kansas and Oklahoma.

Tully was curious to see what Dial, who is small for a vaulter at 5 feet 8 1/2 inches, was doing right. So he and Billy Olson showed up at a meet last Saturday at Dallas where they knew Dial would be vaulting.


“He didn’t know that Olson and I were coming,” Tully said. “He was there the day of the meet, but he decided not to vault and said he was just going to sit and watch, which is interesting. I purposely went there to jump against him.”

Tully, a two-time World Cup champion, will get an opportunity to jump against Dial in the Coliseum meet. France’s Pierre Quinon, the Olympic gold medalist, and Earl Bell, the bronze medalist, are also in the field.

Tully was asked if there are more nuances to be learned once a vaulter is airborne.

“I think people are beginning to realize that you can get more height by swinging on the pole,” he said. “Somewhere in the ‘70s, we got away from from swinging or rotating on the pole. I’ve always been a swinger, one of the reasons I jump high. I swing very fast on the pole for a long ways. Bubka does the same thing.”


Tully is now video-taping his vaults in practice as well as meets.

He turned on his TV set in the den of his Encino home and narrated on his form.

“See how my left leg is bent. I’m trying to set something up. The left leg is blurred in the video. When you’re doing that, you’re putting a lot of pressure on the pole and it collapses. It sets you up for rotation. See how much time I have while upside down. Some other vaulters don’t get upside down early enough.”

What vaulters want is to be in control of their vaults. But the one thing they can’t control is the wind, frequently the bane of vaulters.


The wind was swirling when Tully and Olson were vaulting at an American-record height of 19-2 in the Pepsi Invitational at UCLA May 18.

They’d start to run, stop, then go back to the top of the runway while trying to figure which way it would blow next. It wasn’t a day for a record.

“An ideal wind is just a constant wind in any direction,” Tully said. “Now if you’re talking ideal for jumping your very best, you want a constant light wind behind you. If it gusts, it throws your timing off.”

So how high is high for Tully this season?


“I think I can jump a world record of 19-6,” he said. “I’m physically capable of doing it. It just has to be the right day.”

A day when the wind is constant, when he’s holding high on the pole and, of course, swinging as only a vaulter can.


Vaulter Country Ht. Yr. Sergei Bubka Soviet Union 19-5 3/4 1984 Thierry Vignernon France 19-4 3/4 1984 Joe Dial U.S. 19-2 1985 Konstantin Volkov Soviet Union 19-2 1984 Pierre Quinon France 19-1 1983 Mike Tully U.S. 19-1 1984 Aleksander Krupskiy Soviet Union 19-1 1984 Vladimir Polyakov Soviet Union 19- 3/4 1981 Billy Olson U.S. 19- 1983 Earl Bell U.S. 19- 1984