Pole vaulter Billy Olson scales the heights

While Billy Olson had left his Swiss-made vaulting glasses, track shoes, and fiberglass pole behind, there was no mistaking the blond hair, vice-grip hands, and muscular upper body that helps complete his 6 ft. 2 in. frame.

Some forty years ago Busby Berkeley would have had Olson in a Hollywood musical doing the Varsity Drag on the same sound stage as Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

Billy has that kind of personality and it seemed incongruous that only 48 hours after our interview he would be shooting commercials for a Texas bank when there are so many sportswear firms around.

Olson, and the opinion is widespread, may be the best pole vaulter on this or any other planet. Billy is the world indoor record-holder at 19 ft. 1/4 in.; has vaulted 18-83/4 outdoors twice this season; and last year cleared 18-41/2 or better 19 times. The chief challenge ahead for this 24-year-old graduate of Abilene Christian is the world outdoor record of 19-33/4, held by Vladmir Polyakov of the Soviet Union.

Olson plans to make back-to-back appearances in California when he competes in meets at Modesto on May 14 and at UCLA on May 15. He stays in shape between meets by running, lifting weights, and doing gymnastics.

Billy says that to be a world-class pole vaulter, an athlete must have a sprinter's speed, great upper-body strength, and the ability to control himself while airborne - much like a gymnast.

The way Olson got into pole vaulting is not the recommended procedure.

''The big thing for me in high school was making the golf team,'' he explained. ''At that point in my life that's all I really wanted to do - play golf. But I had a friend on the track team and sometimes I'd go along with him when he practiced. In fact, he was the school's best pole vaulter.

''Like any 16-year-old I was curious about what he was doing and asked him if I could try the pole vault with his equipment. Well, he showed me a couple of things, and a week later I was vaulting higher than he was.''

If you are wondering how tough it is to master what Olson makes look like an exercise in grace, try running down a track sometime while holding a 17-foot pole out in front of you. And that's only the beginning.

Just before the jump, the pole must be placed in a sunken, V-shaped box. The vaulter then takes off, riding acrobatically on the end of the pole, kicking his feet over his head.

''From the time I start my run to the time I get into my launching position, I've covered 143 feet,'' Olson said. ''I can usually tell after my first four or five running steps whether I'm going to do well or not. The toughest part of any vault is how firmly and accurately you are able to plant the pole, because there is no way you can correct a poor takeoff. I've discovered that my fourth, fifth, and sixth tries generally result in my best heights.

''Pole vaulting is very demanding physically,'' he added, ''because every time you jump it jars the entire body, tears at your shoulders, puts pressure on your lower back, and stretches your leg muscles. But for some reason it isn't that tough on your hands.''

When the conversation turns to poles, Billy says he can get three or four years out of a laminated, fiberglass model if he doesn't damage it. ''But once fiberglass gets a chip in it, you might as well throw the pole away,'' he observed. ''Most of my poles are given to me by manufacturers, so cost isn't that much of a factor. But whenever you have to discard a pole that really feels comfortable to you, it's like losing an old friend.''

Olson and former Olympic champion Bob Richards are friends, live within 100 miles of each other, and often discuss pole vaulting. Generally, however, it is Richards who comes to Billy for advice.

''While Bob is very enthusiastic and shares good mental attitudes with me, he's from an era when they vaulted with steel poles that didn't bend,'' Olson explained. ''Now that he has a son who is into pole vaulting, Bob frequently asks my opinion on how to do certain things.''

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