SACRAMENTO, Calif. — So, finally, the crucible for America’s best track-and-field athletes would be a wind-swept stadium in the Sacramento Valley, not the legal courts of the world.
Given the chance, they’d leave accusation and insinuation in their wake. Maybe we could sit back and enjoy the competition — not the controversy — at the sport’s Olympic trials.
It didn’t work out that way.
In the very first event yesterday afternoon on the Sacramento State campus, the pole vault, Jeff Hartwig, the American record-holder at 19 feet, 9-1/4 inches, was disqualified because he took too much time taking his final jump.
“I’m more angry than disappointed,” he said. “I wasn’t given a fair chance. I found myself explaining the rules to people who are supposed to know them.”
The Americans are strong in the vault, but their depth was depleted, as not only Hartwig but Olympic silver medalist Lawrence Johnson didn’t get through qualifying.
Neither did Tommy Skipper, the NCAA champion from Oregon.
“You know, honestly, this is a terrible place to vault,” said Skipper, who as a freshman at Oregon will likely have to vault here in the NCAA championships, scheduled for here the next three years.
“Everyone is out to see good performance, but they set the track up terrible. The side wind is awful. Look at Hartwig. He has jumped 19 feet almost 100 times. I would say the guy is pretty consistent.”
Pretty consistent here, where he has failed twice.
America has six of the world’s top-10 ranked vaulters. It went 1-2 in Sydney. But it’ll go to Athens without its record- holder.
The best right now, helmeted star Toby Stevenson, took one vault at 18-0-1/2 in qualifying. The former Stanford standout easily advanced to tomorrow’s final.
Just as impressive was former Washington Husky Brad Walker. The two-time NCAA indoor champion needed just two vaults to clear 17-8-1/4, then 18-0-1/2. With two makes and no misses, Walker actually led the competition.
He survived a swirling wind others didn’t. Maybe that is because he used to vault in a hanger at the old Sand Point naval base when Edmundson Pavilion was being remodeled and before Dempsey Indoor was built.
“Brad’s a great jumper,” said Stevenson, who has vaulted 19-8-1/4 this year. “He’s strong, he’s fast, he is one of the sport’s promising superstars. I think he’s going to jump real high.”
Without Hartwig, the road to Athens is not as crowded as it was for Walker.
“We’re all so close,” said Walker, who has vaulted 19-1 this year. “It just comes down to who comes ready to compete (in the final).”
Besides Stevenson, he’ll have to deal with Sydney gold medalist Nick Hysong, Tye Harvey, a former world indoor silver medalist; and Derek Miles, a finalist at last year’s world championships.
Walker’s coach at UW, Pat Licari, said Walker was jumping as well as he has all year.
“Everything went smoothly,” said Licari. “It should be fun on Sunday.”
The fact that things went so smoothly for Walker underscored how well he did. It didn’t go worth a darn for so many of the others. In all, nine vaulters couldn’t clear a height, including Hartwig and Johnson.
Hartwig came into this meet four years ago with the world’s best mark and failed to clear a qualifying height then, too.
“Man, I was ready to go,” he said. “In four of my last six meets I’ve been over 19 feet. I jumped 19-3 last weekend.
“I guess I’ve been a victim of circumstances once again. I said after 2000 that I’d never let myself be that disappointed again. This is what I do for a living, and the Olympics are a very small part of that.”
Hartwig won at the Pre Classic. He was so confident he passed at the opening height yesterday, only to miss twice at 18 feet.
One last chance, and a minute in which to take it.
“You’ve got to go,” Stevenson said. “`You take off with a tailwind, and you’ve rolled a seven. You get a head wind, and you’ve rolled snake eyes.”
As a strong side wind came up, Hartwig aborted his final attempt at 18 feet, stopping just before the pit.
“As I started back down the runway to go again, I asked how much time I had left (in his one-minute limit) and was told 12 seconds,” he said.
He grabbed a different pole, started again, but took a red flag from the judge near the bar before he could start his run-up.
Fans began booing. Hartwig said some came forth from the stands with video cameras that showed he had used only eight of the 12 remaining seconds. He claimed the timing judge still held a yellow cautionary flag when the judge near the pit ruled against him.
Hartwig appealed the decision.
After a 20-minute wait, officials let him jump again. He said wasn’t sure whether it would have counted had he made it.
He didn’t make it.
“They’d removed all the markers on the runway,” he said. “The pole vault is about timing and focus. I was distracted.”
As are some of his compatriots, six of them fighting various drug charges that may keep them out of the Olympics.
You only hope they handle the distractions better than Hartwig did. That the meet ends better than it started.
by: Blaine Newnham
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