George Mattos, a two-time Olympic pole vaulter and San Jose State graduate, died Thursday in Oregon after suffering from prostate cancer, family members said. He was 83.
Mattos, who finished ninth in the 1952 Helsinki Games and fourth in Melbourne four years later, spent more than three decades as a music teacher in Weed.
He lived in southern Oregon for the past 20 years, and had attended every U.S. Olympic track and field trials since 1992 until last summer.
“I didn’t feel well enough this time,” he recently told the Mail Tribune of Medford, Ore.
But Mattos watched the London Games at home. “I know the feeling you get deep inside, that unbelievable joy,” he told the newspaper. “There is just nothing like it.”
Born in Santa Cruz in 1929, Mattos grew up in Campbell where his grandparents owned a fruit ranch. He moved with his family to the Monterey Peninsula when he was 12. Mattos graduated from Pacific Grove High, where in 1947 he won the state championship in the vault using a bamboo pole. He out-leaped Berkeley’s Robert Culp, who later became a well-known actor.
Mattos recalled how working on the family ranch gave his 5-foot-10-inch frame the upper-body strength to vault. Part of his chores included lifting boxes of apricots and prunes “doing weightlifting all those years but I didn’t realize it.”
The accomplished clarinet and saxophone player majored in music at San Jose State while training under legendary track coach Bud Winter who would go on to tutor famous Speed City runners John Carlos, Lee Evans and Tommie Smith.
Mattos, a member of the Pole Vault Hall of Fame, was overshadowed by American Bob Richards during his era although he was ranked among the world’s top 10 vaulters for a decade. Richards won consecutive Olympic gold medals in 1952 and ’56 and a bronze medal in 1948. Richards also was the first athlete to appear on the front of a Wheaties cereal box.
Mattos thought he had a chance to earn a medal in 1956 after finishing second at the Olympic trials in Los Angeles. But Greek vaulter Georgios Roubanis edged him for third place in Melbourne.
The bronze medalist used a fiberglass pole that gave Roubanis an advantage over the rest of the vaulters who used steel poles.
“So I lost the bronze medal to the first fiberglass pole ever used in the Olympic Games,” Mattos told the Mail Tribune. “It was definitely unfair, but there was no rule against it.”
Mattos retired from pole vaulting in 1960 after failing to qualify for the Rome Games. He did clear 15 feet with a steel pole before leaving the sport. Mattos never used a fiberglass pole.
The Olympian stayed active by playing tennis and skiing. He also climbed Mount Shasta five times according to a 1983 story in the Redding Searchlight. Mattos spent several years working weekends for the U.S. National Weather Service.
But his real passion was music. Mattos worked in big bands, jazz combos, Dixieland and concert band throughout his life, including at San Jose State and while serving four years in the Air Force. He was the leader of the Dixie Fat Cats Dixieland Band that played at the Medford Jazz Festival for 10 years.
Mattos started teaching music in 1956 at the elementary and high school in Weed. In 1960 he helped start the music department at newly opened College of the Siskiyous.
“People think sports and music are a weird combination,” he once told a reporter. “People say I should be a track coach. I don’t have any desire” to coach.
“I didn’t want to spend my life in a smelly locker room,” Mattos added. “So many people in athletics never mature. Music is more mature. Music has more appeal. It’s so alive, so vivacious.
“Music was my life work.”
He is survived by his second wife Lorraine Mattos of Central Point, Ore., his brother Rick Mattos, first wife Ginger Mattos of Mount Shasta; children Diana Gilley of Medford, Rob Mattos of Menlo Park, Dave Mattos of Haiku, Hawaii, Karen Kozak of Phoenix and Linda Mattos of Bellevue, Wash., and four grandchildren.