John Pennel, the wiry, Memphis-born pole-vaulter who set eight world records in the 1960’s and was the first man to clear 17 feet, died on Sunday at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 53.
A resident of Westlake Village, Calif., he had been suffering from stomach and liver cancer, his family said.
In an event that had seen the world record advance less than six inches, to the 16-foot level, over the previous 20 years, and only then after aluminum poles had replaced bamboo ones, John Thomas Pennel was in the vanguard of a group of pioneering athletes who transformed the sport in the early 1960’s.
Their weapon was the new fiberglass pole, and their impact on the sport was decisive.
In one five-month span in 1963, Pennel, a senior at Northeast Louisiana State, personally added more than nine inches to the record, beginning with a 16-foot-3-inch vault at the Memphis Relays on March 23 and culminating with his benchmark-shattering vault of 17 feet 0 3/4 inches at the Gold Coast meet at the University of Miami on Aug. 24. Olympic Frustration
His stunning series of achievements in 1963 made Pennel, who won the year’s Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete, a favorite to win the gold medal at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, but a back injury six weeks before the Games cost him a chance for Olympic glory. He finished 11th, with a height of 15-5, as his American teammate, Fred Hansen, set an Olympic record with a vault of 16-8 3/4.
Hansen, who advanced the world record to 17-3 3/4 during 1964, and Bob Seagren, who increased it to 17-5 two years later, dominated the sport for a while after that, but it was Pennel who took the record to 17-6, in 1966.
Two years later, with Seagren now his main rival, Pennel was again a favorite win an Olympic gold, but he was knocked out of the competition in Mexico City and relegated to a fifth-place finish when his pole fell under the bar on a vault of 17-8 1/2 that would have clinched a bronze medal and kept him in competition for the gold, which was captured by Seagren.
The next year, Pennel set his eighth and last world record, 17-10 1/4, more than a foot and a half above his original mark. A series of injuries led him to end his career in 1970, the year Christos Papanicolaou of Greece became the first man to clear 18 feet. The current world mark is 20-1 1/4, held by Sergei Bubka of Ukraine.
After his athletic career, Pennel worked in sports marketing, for Adidas and others, and made television commercials.
Pennel is survived by a brother, William; his wife, Carolyn; two children from her previous marriage, Kevin and Kimberly, and three children, Shannon, Sean and Erin.
by: Robert McG Thomas Jr.
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