LOS ANGELES – Mike Woepse was just 6 when he first tried the family business.
“I sawed an old crossbar in half so he could jump,” his father, Greg, recalled, laughing at the memory.
At first it appeared that pole vault would be just a passing phase for Mike Woepse as he moved on to other sports, emerging as a standout tennis player and then golfer.
“I used to tell Mike ‘Stick with golf,'” said Billy Olson, an 11-time world record holder in the pole vault and longtime family friend. “You can play all your life and make a zillion dollars.”
Woespe, however, ignored Olson’s warning and was eventually lured back to the vault.
“Once you get going there’s something unique about the pole vault, it will grab you,” Olson said.
Mike Woepse, now a UCLA sophomore, has taken the family obsession and made it his own, a desire that carried him through the disappointment of an injury-shortened senior season at Mater Dei High and a disastrous freshman year in Westwood to his current position as a rising star in American pole vaulting.
“I’m in a really good spot right now,” Woepse said.
Woepse, with a season’s best of 18-feet, 2 1/2 inches, is the favorite to win the vault at the NCAA Track & Field Championships on Friday in Des Moines with some of the event’s all-time greats predicting even bigger things in the near future.
“I expect my school record to be broken in the next couple of years,” said Mike Tully, like Olson, a former world-record indoors holder, whose UCLA school record of 18-8 3/4 has stood since 1978.
It is a record so old that it was set in the final Pac-8 conference meet.
Olson goes even further.
“Mike has the ability to be a world-record holder if he stays healthy,” said the man referred to as “Uncle Billy” by Woepse and his siblings Greg, Patrick and Elizabeth.
Uncle Billy is not alone in predicting that Woepse could attract international attention as early as the U.S. Olympic Trials later this month in Eugene.
“I have a sneaky feeling,” Olson said. “I wouldn’t surprised if he made (the U.S. Olympic) team.”
Woepse grew up vaulting in his family’s backyard in Tustin.
“It’s quite a set-up,” said Tully, another longtime family friend. “The runway’s 120, 125 feet, a good runway. Full pit.”
“Better than a lot of colleges,” Olson said.
Greg Woepse, the father, was a world-class vaulter with a resume that included a personal best of 18-7 and a silver medal in the Pan American Games. His son, Greg, jumped 17-6 1/2 for UCLA last season and upset Washington’s Scott Roth, the national collegiate leader, to win the 2011 Pac-10 title. Elizabeth also vaulted for the Bruins.
Mike Woepse’s potential was evident at an early age. “You could tell he had a special talent from Day One,” Olson said.
Which is why Greg Woepse instead of pushing Mike early tried to steer him into other sports.
“I didn’t want him to burn out,” Greg Woespe said.
“Fourth, fifth, sixth grade, I didn’t vault at all,” Mike said.
By the time he entered Mater Dei he was hooked. He watched an old videotape his father made of Tully in the ’80s so many times that the tape turned green. “Mike Tully literally turned green,” Mike said.
Woepse won the state title as a Mater Dei junior and then jumped a nation-leading 17-6 as a senior before a hamstring injury shut down his season in April. He continued to struggle as a Bruins freshman. The day his brother won the Pac-10 title, Mike managed just 15-3 3/4.
“I changed coaches, my Dad had coached me all my life,” Woepse said. “I lost my feel for the jump. I couldn’t describe what I was feeling. It was a house of cards and it just fell. If it wasn’t one thing it was another, all season long. It was a brutal season.”
Woepse credits his father and UCLA assistant Anthony Curran, long considered one of the nation’s top vault coaches, for his turnaround. Woepse said he has also benefited from regular calls from Uncle Billy and the man he calls “Mr. Tully.”
“I told Greg the other day, ‘Have him quit calling me Mr. Tully,” Tully said. “‘It’s making me feel old.'”
Woepse has been working with some 16-foot poles Olson recently sent him. The poles are longer and stiffer than the one Woepse used to clear 18-2 1/2. If he can adjust to them, Mr. Tully’s record might be history.
“If he can make some adjustments he’s going to have another breakthrough,” Olson said. “Just one more little step. He’s ready.”
By SCOTT M. REID / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER