''Once you've mastered the fundamentals, no coach can really tell you what to do,'' explained world-class pole vaulter Mike Tully, who is competing in the US Olympic Track and Field Trials this week at the Los Angeles Coliseum. ''I like being on my own because I figure nobody knows me better than I know myself. At this point in my career, everything I do is a mental game.''
Three things a pole vaulter must have, according to Tully, are the speed of a sprinter; the strength of a javelin thrower; and the flexibility of a high jumper. It also helps getting to and from meets if you've had experience convincing taxi drivers that a 16-foot pole dangling from outside their cab is not a traffic hazard. Most of the major airlines have long since learned to deal with the problem.
Tully, a former world indoor record holder, recently vaulted 18 ft. 11 in.at the Southern Pacific Association Championship to set an American outdoor record that was later broken by Earl Bell. And last week while tuning up for the trials , Mike reportedly cleared 19 feet in a practice vault.
There's nothing wrong with his confidence either - as shown by his prediction that he will make the US Olympic team as he did four years ago. He thinks Dan Ripley, who also was on the 1980 squad that did not compete at Moscow, and Bell, who competed at Montreal in 1976, will earn the other two berths.
When Tully vaults, he starts his run 125 feet from his launching point, give or take a few inches. And he is never alone. Clutched tightly in his hands while he is taking off down the runway is a fiberglass pole at least 16 feet long.
The whole maneuver is one that requires not only strength but superb balance. If things go perfectly there is no body jolt, just a feeling of exhilaration when Mike clamps his pole into the V-shaped wooden box built for the purpose. But if his timing is off it's like hitting an invisible pothole somewhere up in the wild blue yonder.
In his interviews with the press, Tully often likens the concentration required in pole vaulting to that needed to build and maintain a championship golf swing. No wonder pole vaulters are always talking about rhythm, cadence, and the importance of keeping their act together from start to finish.
''What you do at the beginning of your run obviously has a direct relation to what you accomplish at the end of your vault,'' Tully told me. ''Technique is a big part of pole vaulting and so is the mental preparation. But on certain days the wind factor also has to be taken into consideration - even to the point of using a different pole if the flexibility of your original choice isn't right.''
For the statistically minded, most vaulting poles are approximately 161/2 feet long; weigh slightly more than six pounds; are hollow in the middle; and may bend as much as 90 percent, depending upon the type and weight of the vaulter. The frame is generally 70 percent fiberglass and 30 percent resin and is wrapped in white plastic tape.
Most poles are designed to withstand 200 pounds of world-class athlete, but also carry a warning near the top that reads: ''The weight specified on this pole is a maximum and should not be exceeded.'' If handled with care, a quality pole will last for several years. But if a pole becomes chipped or damaged, it is unwise for the vaulter to put himself into a position where he might get hurt.
Asked about the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Olympics, Tully replied: ''At first I was actually kind of happy that the Russians weren't coming, because it increased our chances of winning so many more events. But then I got to thinking that victories never mean the same unless you are competing against the best, and the Soviets obviously have some of the greatest athletes in the world.
''Take Russia's Sergei Bubka for example. I've been told that Bubka can run faster with a pole in his hands than Russia's best high jumper can with nothing but air to restrict him. Sergei (who owns the world indoor pole vault record at 19-11/2) would have pushed us all to greater heights. Of course I wish Bubka and his teammates were coming.''
One thing Tully doesn't understand is why more athletes who go into pro sports to make a living don't opt for track and field instead. Today, because of certain rule changes, they can also live handsomely by endorsing products like running shoes, clothing, etc., without losing their eligibility.
''I watch the way players jump, soar, and hang in the air for extended periods in pro basketball and I figure that many of them could have been world-class in track and field,'' Mike said. ''In fact, I can remember my father wanting me to play baseball as a kid, and I did for a while. But eventually I got tired of standing around in the outfield waiting for someone to hit a fly ball in my direction. To me track and field events provide a lot more excitement.''