Sergei Bubka cleared 20 feet in the pole vault three times in March in indoor meets in Europe, with a best of 20 feet 1 inch.
It's a significant figure for Americans, as much so as an 8-foot high jump or 30-foot long jump.
But Europeans identify with metric measurements. So the vaulter from the Soviet Union said his 20-foot vaults were gifts to the American public.
In the past half-century, the pole vault world record has advanced from 15 feet to 20 feet, but Cornelius (Dutch) Warmerdam, who first cleared 15, had an even greater impact on the event than Bubka.
Warmerdam cleared 15 feet for the first time April 13, 1940, in a meet at Berkeley. He did it with a bamboo pole, in contrast to the sophisticated fiberglass poles used today.
"There was very little bend to the bamboo poles, almost imperceptible," said Warmerdam, now 75 and living in Fresno.
What Warmerdam accomplished on the bamboo pole was mind-boggling at the time.
His 15-foot vault at Berkeley broke the world record of 14-11 set by USC's Bill Sefton and Earle Meadows in 1937.
Warmerdam went on to clear 15 feet 43 times in the next four years in what was one of the most dominating eras in track and field.
--No one else cleared 15 feet until 11 years after his first 15-foot foot vault at Berkeley.
--He extended the outdoor record to 15-7 3/4 on May 23, 1942, at Modesto. It lasted for 15 years.
--On March 20, 1943, in Chicago, Warmerdam improved his indoor record to 15-8 1/2. It stood for 16 years.
Warmerdam has met Bubka and admires him.
"I was a little surprised that it took him so long to get to 20 feet because he's head and shoulders above everyone else," Warmerdam said.
Asked about the advantage of fiberglass over bamboo, Warmerdam said: "About three feet, but that's purely a guess."
So Warmerdam's accomplishments have to be judged in the context of the equipment he used.
He experimented with some fiberglass poles toward the end of his competitive vaulting career in 1944. He was 29 and the poles were just being developed and weren't very good, he said.
Warmerdam grew up on a farm near Hanford, Calif., and vaulting intrigued him.
So he and and his two brothers, along with two friends, fashioned a crude vaulting pit.
"We enjoyed it, but I don't know why one of us wasn't killed," Warmerdam said in an earlier interview with Track & Field News. "The pit was just turned-over dirt and the poles were very dangerous. When they split, the fragments were like a sword."
Warmerdam said they got their poles from pine props that held up fruit trees, shaving them to about 10 or 12 feet in length.
"We put up a standard, put nails in for the peg and dug a little hole for the pole plant," he said.
Later, Warmerdam used a bamboo pole at Hanford High and Fresno State, where his improvement was steady--from a nine-foot vault as a high school freshman to a 14-foot effort as a college senior--and then on to 15 feet plus.
Today's vaulters fuss over their poles and carry several to meets, using some for lower heights, others for varying weather conditions.
Warmerdam said he used only two poles during his amazing record-breaking spree in the early 1940s. "When I was at Stanford graduate school, I looked at some castoff poles," Warmerdam said. "I found one that seemed to be strong enough, and it became my first pole that I used to clear 15 feet.
"I used it for half of the last five years I was vaulting. In the meantime a vaulter at Fresno State said that he had a pole that was too light for him and asked me to try it. So I carried both of them along to all of my meets."
Mike Tully, the former UCLA star vaulter and American record-holder, said he has about 35 to 40 poles in his garage and usually takes five poles to a meet.
Tully said that on a 17-foot pole, his hold has been as high as 16 feet 9 inches. Warmerdam's hold was considerably lower because of a knotty problem.
"My top hand was at 13-4," he said. "The bamboo pole had a knot on it. I had two grips. I just couldn't make myself hold right over that knot. I had to hold below it or above it, and that made a difference of four inches."
Warmerdam represented the San Francisco Olympic Club after he left Fresno State--where he later became the school's track coach--and then St. Mary's Pre-Flight school when he was an officer in the Navy.
In that era, many track athletes didn't compete after college because there weren't the financial rewards that can be gained today.
Warmerdam said his incentive to continue vaulting after he left college was his enjoyment of the sport as an opportunity to travel.
"Particularly, since I was going higher all the time, so it was no time to quit," he said.
At his competitive best, Warmerdam stood 6 feet and weighed 166 pounds. His only regret is that he never had an opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games. He was doing his vaulting during World War II, when the Games were on hold.
"It was the goal of everybody in track and field to participate in the Olympics," Warmerdam said. "The unfortunate circumstance was that I came to my peak when the Olympics weren't available to me."
Warmerdam said a vault of 14-7 3/4 preceded his first 15-foot effort.
"I decided I might as well shoot at the record," he said. "I didn't make it on my first attempt, but I had the confidence I could make it and over I went."
Warmerdam said that he attempted 16 feet two or three times during his career, coming close but not quite clearing a height that would have put the record virtually out of sight at the time.
Unlike Bubka, who has a sprinter's speed, Warmerdam said he wasn't very fast.
"But what helped me was that I was able to run fast while carrying a pole, and that was the essential thing," Warmerdam said.
He is retired now, living on an acre of land and tending his many fruit trees. He and his wife, Nita, celebrated their 50th anniversary last August.
Warmerdam says he plays golf three times a week and ruefully notes that his handicap has soared from seven to 18.
He has, however, already secured his place in track and field history, a phenomenon of his time.
Bob Richards, a two-time Olympic champion, futilely tried to break Warmerdam's record in the 1950s. He once said of the Flying Dutchman, "He was part sprinter, part shock-absorber, part acrobat and part strongman. He wasn't human."
STANDING THE TEST OF TIME No one has dominated pole vaulting as Cornelius Warmerdam did in the 1940s and '50s. He first cleared 15 feet in 1940, and no other vaulter matched that height for 16 years. He set the world outdoor record at 15-7 3/4 in 1942, a record that stood for 15 years. Since then, no outdoor record has remained unbroken for any longer than four years. WORLD INDOOR RECORD: 20-1 WORLD OUTDOOR RECORD: 19-10.5
YEAR NUMBER TIMES SET HEIGHT AT END OF YEAR 1942 1 15-7 3/4 1957 1 15-8 1/4 * 1960 1 15-9 1961 1 15-10 1962 3 16-2 1/2 1963 4 17-0 3/4 1964 2 17-3 3/4 1966 1 17-5 1/2 1967 2 17-7 3/4 1968 1 17-9 1969 1 17-10 1/4 1970 4 18-1 1972 2 18-5 1/2 ** 1975 1 18-6 1976 2 18-8 1/4 *** 1980 4 18-11 1/2 1981 2 19-0 3/4 1983 2 19-1 1/2 1984 5 19-5 3/4 1985 1 19-8 1/4 1986 1 19-8 1/2 1987 1 19-9 1/4 1988 2 19-10 1/2 ****
* Bob Gutowski's record stood for 3 years ** Bob Seagren's record stood for 3 years *** Dave Roberts' record stood for 4 years **** Sergei Bubka has held the record since 1984. His current record has stood for three years. Bubka holds the indoor record of 20-1.