For one brief track and field season, I held the pole vault record at St. John Vianney High School in Holmdel, New Jersey: 8 feet, 6 inches. Before you laugh though, I should tell you what the circumstances were and note that this was around 1972 when clearing 10 feet was considered pretty good at that level. (And no, high jumpers have not broken 8 feet yet, in case you were wondering.)

To begin with, SJV was a new school and I was in the second graduating class, so we were literally building our sports programs from the ground up. During football practice, players had to form a line across the field and pick up rocks from one end to the other, which we deposited in our helmets. Yet in our first year of varsity football — no senior class — we had a winning record. Perhaps, we took extra pride in our team because we got our hands dirty and felt personally connected to that uneven rock-strewn field. It was our home turf.

I ran track in spring mainly to stay in shape for football, but quickly found that at 5′5″, my little legs couldn’t keep up with bigger, faster competitors in the 100 and 220 yard sprints. However, I wanted to compete in something I might have a chance at winning. No one else was willing to try the pole vault — and for good reasons: We didn’t have a landing pit; none of the coaches knew anything about pole vaulting; and you have to be slightly crazy to run full speed, plant a long pole in a metal box, then fling yourself into the air with the hope that you will not stall midway and fall backwards onto the runway, which was often concrete or part of an adjoining parking lot. None of that deterred me. I saw opportunity where others saw potential disaster or humiliation.

Being the studious sort, I went to the library and found books that laid out basic techniques. Since we didn’t have a landing pit with foam strips or air mattresses, outside I just practiced my approach. To simulate the vault part, I worked out on the gym ropes, hoisting my legs up. The first time I actually attempted a vault was at a meet. Three times I sprinted down the runway, planted the pole… and ran right under the bar. I didn’t have the confidence to launch myself into the air. After the meet was over, vaulters on other teams offered tips and showed me how to do it.

A rival high school allowed me and one other aspiring pole vaulter from SJV to practice at their facilities. They had state of the art air mats and much different poles. That’s when I realized part of the problem was whoever ordered our equipment was going for durability — not flexibility. If you have ever watched modern pole vaulting, you’ve seen how much bend there is in the poles. Not the ones we had. Even the shot putters couldn’t bend the pole I was stuck with. In effect, I had to sling myself over the bar. It was more like the original version of the sport when Europeans in olden days used sturdy sticks to jump over muddy streams and canals.

As it turned out, a lot of schools didn’t have pole vaulters, which meant that if I cleared the minimum height of 7 feet, I had a chance to medal. In life, they say half of winning is just showing up. I say the other half is picking the right thing to show up for. But I learned an even more valuable lesson at the meet where I set my school record. There was just one other vaulter besides me and my teammate, Guy Gaudenzi, so the odds were in our favor of getting a medal. Guy was also a football player, small but much more muscular than me, and tough as nails.

We all cleared 7 feet, then 7′6″ and Guy goes for 8 feet. He runs hard, plants the pole… and halfway up, falls sideways… smashing his wrist into the base of the solid metal stanchion that supports the bar! He immediately screams out expletives and holds up his wrist, which is totally bent at a freakish angle from a compound fracture. Keep in mind, I have never seen Guy show any sign of weakness or pain in football before, so to see him in such agony just before I’m supposed to jump, is kind of upsetting. I almost throw up, and have to look away while trainers come to his aid, then take him to an ambulance.

The meet must go on. I think of one thing as I prepare for my approach: DO NOT FALL SIDEWAYS! I decide if I am going to fail, I am going to fail FORWARD, and I run harder than ever, fling myself up and clear 8 feet. The bar gets raised another half foot, and I barely make it over that. At the end of the meet, I received a “silver” medal in a cheap plastic case — the one pictured at top, which I kept all these years as a reminder that if you’re going to go for the gold in anything you choose to do, be sure to fail FORWARD. Keep your momentum going in the right direction.

And that is what I think is the biggest problem with the mindset of many people in Hawaii. We have become so averse to risk, instead of looking ahead to what is possible and taking a leap of faith, we falter and keep falling sideways… or backwards, as is the case with efforts to kill rail, instead of seeing it as an opportunity to plan and build a better future for Hawaii from the ground up.

By: Rich Figel


Going for the Gold

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