There comes a time in every athlete’s life when they realize they’re never going to get their gold medal. It happened to me in my senior year of college at the IC4A Eastern College Athletic Conference outdoor track and field championships at Princeton University.
It was warm in New Jersey, mid-May. I stood at the end of the runway looking at the fiberglass bar set at 17-feet ¾-inches, oscillating in the gusty 15-mph tailwind.
I’d missed twice at this height and it was my last chance to clear it. If I made the jump, I’d go to Nationals in Indianapolis. If I missed, I’d probably never pole vault again.
With that in mind, I’d selected the biggest gun in my quiver, a 15’ 9”, 185-pound AMC Pacer. When properly loaded that sucker would throw my skinny 160-pounds like a catapult. All I had to do was run fast, plant, stay low and glide toward the mats, roll, kick, turn and push off with the top hand, clear the bar, and fall on my back on the foam pads.
If you roll too early you’ll crash in front of the pits. If you plant off center, you’ll get thrown 16 feet to the right or the left. If you run too slow you’ll get kicked back onto the runway. If you stay down too long you’ll break your pole into a million pieces.
These were the things I was thinking about. The last time I’d brought out my big gun — at the Penn Relays — I’d muffed the plant, got launched into the metal standard and cut my leg on the pegs.
The leaders in the 5,000 came around and I rested the pole on my shoulder and yelled some encouragement to my teammate Frank Powers who was at the front, as usual. Finally I sprayed my palms with Cramer Tuf-Skin, found my grip near the top, lifted the heavy pole and charged the trapezoidal plant box roughly 82 steps away.
Full-tilt, I slammed the pole into the steel and felt it flex and bend. I kicked my right knee up and left the ground, straightened my arms and tried to stay down till the arc of fiberglass swung left and the pads rushed up. Then I tucked like a fetus and let it throw me, shot out my legs toward the sky and pushed off with the top hand.
Plenty of height but I brushed the crossbar on the way up. It jiggled on the uprights as I fell to the mats and watched as the breeze thrummed the bar. It rolled once, hung up on the wind stops, then tumbled into the pit.
I asked the judge for another jump — you get “a redo” if the bar is displaced by the wind — but he said, “No way.”
That was my moment. I was never going to get my gold medal and sure enough, I never pole vaulted again.
Six years later, in 1992, I was crouched under the 20-foot roof called Horizontal Bop (5.12c) in Redstone, Colorado waiting out a thunderstorm. In Redstone, in 1992, there were three things you could count on — death, taxes and an afternoon thunderstorm. At that time there were only two things to do in Redstone: climb at The Stein, a 500-foot, five-tiered cobblestone crag with my friends DR and LR, and my wife at the time, Cristina, or watch the Olympics. Coverage of the Olympics, held in Barcelona that year, started in the evening so the only game in town was the Stein.
Everyone was equally committed. Cristina was stoked, climbing better than ever — she’d go on to redpoint 5.13 in 1994 and do the second ascent of Sendero Luminoso, a 2,500-foot 5.12d in Potrero Chico in 1995 with our friend Kevin Gallegher. DR and LR put us up for weeks. They’d get home from 8-hour days at the office and trek up to the crag to get on a couple of routes, offer beta, and spectate. Then we’d all race down the big hill to watch the Olympics and eat LR’s cookies. (I ate most of the cookies.)
After a week of this climb / Olympics rhythm, the Olympics and climbing started to meld. Soon the afternoons at the Stein took on an Olympic luster. After watching great athletes push to the edge again and again, we tried harder on our onsights and projects. After marveling at and cheering on sportspersons from all over the world, we were more invested in our friends’ successes. Climbing seemed grand and consequential. Our hearts were easy with the pleasure that comes from delighting in the success and well-being of others.
The rain fell harder as I stood about 25 feet up on the good edges at the base of the Horizontal Bop roof. Water dripped off the lip. The holds on the slab above were soaked. DR suggested I come down but the slab below was wet — I’d probably slip — and I didn’t want to blow the onsight.
“I’m gonna wait it out,” I said.
“You’re gonna stand up there till the rain stops?” DR asked. “Could be a while.”
It didn’t matter. I wanted an Olympic moment and this was as close as I was going to get to it. They all seemed to understand and quietly took shelter in “the condo,” an alcove DR had hewn out at the base of Pigs in Zen for the very purpose, and we waited together for the storm to pass, for the drips to stop, for the holds to dry. An hour later, maybe longer, I gripped the sandstone jug and swung into the roof. It was a fight but I got to the crux and with the cheers of my teammates in my ears I crimped the little cobbles to the chains.
There was no award ceremony that night, just Olympics and cookies, but there with my fellow Olympians I felt like a medalist.