I first noticed the pole vault more than 40 years ago as a sophomore at New Haven High School in Indiana. At a meet, I saw a vaulter named Ed Foss break a pole. It sounded like a gun going off. The whole crowd watched him as he picked up another and cleared the bar a moment later. I thought to myself, “That’s what I want to do!”
A few years later, the 1972 Olympics were on TV and I was in awe of vaulter Bob Seagren. He was flying! I began to collect anything related to pole vaulting: photos, then 16mm and Super 8 films, then later videotapes and DVDs. Through all these years—including 35 as a pole vault coach—I’ve assembled a massive collection of photos, art, film and other memorabilia related to the sport.
More than 3,000 images of the pole vault and hundreds of hours of footage from the late-1800s to the present day reside on shelves in my apartment. But only a handful of people have seen this collection. It had been my dream to have a pole vault museum, but you can’t fund that on a coach and former art teacher’s pay. About two years ago, though, one of my athletes suggested, “Just put it on Facebook, Coach.” I had no idea I could do this type of thing, but once I learned about Facebook Groups, I realized I could create a living pole vault museum online that could grow over time. I created an open group called “The Vault: how bamboo, steel, and fiberglass changed our lives.” Nearly every day, I add a photo, cartoon, story, drawing or film clip from my collection. Other people will jump in and comment or share their own images and stories. Through word of mouth, we’ve gotten more than 1,600 members, and we have the great honor of having a number of Olympians, medalists and former greats as part of the group. The comments are classic and reflect the long history of this event. It’s really incredible to put up a picture and get comments from someone who was there and who even remembers what the wind was like that day. We hear gems of stories.
For me, it’s been a special thing to make connections with some of my idols. At a meet a few months ago, a great vaulter Larry Jessee told me how much he enjoyed the group and then handed me his phone. On the other line was Bob Seagren, the 1968 Olympic gold medalist. This was the man I once dreamed of becoming. He called to tell me that he had just joined the group and loved it.
Another great moment was when a Swedish Olympian asked if I had any footage on Kjell Issakson, a former world record holder and one of my idols as I was learning to vault. I mailed him a DVD of numerous jumps and they played it at Issakson’s 60th birthday party. Even though we’ve never met, Facebook has allowed me to develop a relationship with these people I admire.
Since starting this project, it’s been fun to come home and decide what I’m going to post, whether it’s something from an out-of-print textbook, an old newspaper, or a video archive. Sometimes I’ll share drills and updates from the athletes I coach at Rice University, but the group is mostly about the history of the sport. It’s a great network for the older guys to reminisce and get some recognition, but it’s also a chance for young athletes to learn from the ones who were there and gain an appreciation of history. In a way, my “Facebook museum” is a time machine. It is storytelling that inspires the young and connects the icons of the past with the champions of the future. David Butler has been a Rice University pole vault coach for 14 years. He coaches on the USA National Pole Vault Development Staff, speaks at international conferences about the sport and is recognized as a “pole vault historian.” He’s also a former Ball State University record holder in the pole vault. Join The Vault group on Facebook.
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