It’s become a common sight over the years in Philomath — Dennis Phillips practicing his skills at the pole vault pit behind the Philomath High School track.
“Pole vaulting makes me eat right, keeps my weight down and if you don’t do things right, you don’t recover,” the 70-year-old Phillips said Thursday a few hours before heading to Eugene for an all-comers meet. “It’s all about the ability to cover. And in the process, you learn how to live, man. It’s kind of like you have to stretch yourself to the max periodically, otherwise, you just go downhill.”
Phillips first attempted the pole vault nearly six decades ago as an 11-year-old. He followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Stan Phillips, at Carlmont High School in Belmont, California. In the following years, he won a Pac-8 Conference title, an indoor national championship and had a school-record 17-1 vault at Oregon State in 1967.
Phillips had his sights set on a shot at the Olympics but just days before the 1968 trials in Los Angeles, he broke both of his poles. He ended up borrowing other poles and finished fifth, two spots too low to qualify.
Phillips went pro and competed in the International Track Association around the world until age 29. He left vaulting at that point to focus on family. When he joined the PHS staff as an assistant coach in the late 1980s, he started up again.
When Phillips works with PHS prospects, one of the most important factors he looks for is determination, along with coordination abilities that are good enough to avoid getting hurt.
“If they keep coming and they show that they really want to do it, I love working with them,” he said. “Because they listen to you, they develop and it’s fun to watch them improve. It’s all about improvement. It’s not so much how high they go, it’s to see them keep improving that is the satisfaction.”
Matt Phillips, his son, is among the best-ever at PHS and went on to clear 18-1 at the University of Washington, higher than his dad had ever gone.
Safety is an important factor to Phillips when it comes to coaching the pole vault.
“If they can’t get that particular part of it, safety, then I’ll tell them, ‘why don’t you try something else’ When they start going high, you want to make sure the kid knows where he’s at in the air and to bail out and not get hurt,” he said.
Phillips had never been seriously hurt over his career. He’s had lots of pulled muscles and injured his shoulder once.
“I can move around with no pain,” he said. “I pushed the limit all the time and pretty much, most of the time, have not been injured.”
The pole vault debuted at the state track meet in Oregon in 1995 and Philomath athletes had the jump on the competition with Phillips coaching. Melissa Mellein won the Class 3A title in 1995 and Erica Boren followed in 1997. Boren went on to compete in the 2008 Olympics (as Erica Bartolina).
“She was special in that she had only one eye so it was really hard to figure out how we could make it possible so she could do it,” Phillips said. “The coordination to get in that pole box down there running full speed is a real problem if you don’t have binocular vision. But when you’ve got one eye, you’re looking at the box get smaller.”
Back in the 1990s, pole vault boxes varied in size to create even more of a challenge for Boren.
“She had a heck of a time because she was judging it by the size,” he said. “She was just a good athlete. When she first started, it didn’t take her very long and she was good.”
In an interview during Boren’s junior year, she commented on Phillips’ coaching.
“He explains things really, really well. He videotapes our jumps and says he stays up until 2 or 3 in the morning going over them,” she said. “He actually pole vaults with us. He’ll take the pole and show us what to do.”
Phillips has helped with decathletes over the years and three athletes that he’s worked with cleared 19 feet, including his son, Matt, who did it in practice. Two others went to the Olympics, including Kory Tarpenning who went 19-3-3/4 in a 1988 meet.
“Not that I had much to do with it, but they all come back and thank me for the help that I showed them,” Phillips said.
Phillips set his first world record at age 54 by clearing 14-2, a new indoor meet standard for the 50-54 masters age group, on a basketball court at Clackamas Community College.
He has slowed down over the years and now limits the mileage he puts on to compete in meets. Nowadays, he basically goes to only regional competitions, such as last week’s all-comers meet in Eugene.
“You try not to miss it because it’s so special,” Phillips said in reference to Hayward Field. “Everybody gathers down there … it’s a big deal.”
Phillips headed to the meet with a world record in mind in the 70-74 age group. The outdoor record heading in was 10-10.
“I’m trying to make 11-6. I’ve made it a few times in practice the last couple months, probably four or five times,” Phillips said. “It’s very hard to do. I was making 11 feet about once a week, so that’s kind of where it’s at.”
Phillips also tries to compete each year in the Portland Masters meet, although he missed this year’s event because of a family wedding.
Will he ever give up the sport?
“When I can’t do it. As long as I can do it, I’ll keep doing it.”