Without Peer

John Hopper was born to pole vault: so said everyone who knew him. At the age of 1½ he could leap at a run onto his parent’s four-poster; at two he could jump over the railing of his crib and land inside comfortably on his back.

He spent most of his grammar school years constructing and conquering larger and larger obstacles. Cardboard boxes, hay bails, curtain rods, and tent poles were enlisted for this purpose. By the age of 12 he could clear a 10-foot high barrier. That’s when he swore he’d go to the Olympics.

He continued to practice throughout high school. Not just practice: he read books, he watched videos of the greats of yesteryear, studying their techniques, eating what they ate, moving like they moved. “Someday,” he said, “I’ll break the world record.” That was 21 feet.

What John Hopper didn’t know was that, in the world at large, pole vaulting had gone out of fashion. John was from a small town where no one knew what was fashionable. The old VCR tapes of the great vaulters from the ’70s and ’80s had nothing to say about the progress of vaulting lately. John didn’t know—had no way of knowing—that in the realm of Olympic track and field events, pole vaulting had lost its luster.

So as John spent day and night leaping higher and higher obstacles, pole vaulters everywhere else were turning from the sport. The few that still called themselves vaulters spent little time at it. Most of them threw the javelin or did the long jump too, and vaulting was a kind of extra event—something they tried at a meet where they hadn’t won anything else. As a result, vaulters were jumping lower and lower each year. By the time John was a freshman, the world champion could only jump a 12-foot barrier. The next year the record was 10 feet. By John’s senior year—though he didn’t know it—the national champion won clearing a 6-foot barrier.

By the time John first competed in a national event, in his first year of college, he could clear an obstacle 20 feet high. That was enough for first place. The second place vaulter jumped just 3 feet high. Everybody said John was “without peer.” Naturally John felt proud; but also disappointed and even, somehow, oddly ashamed.

After that he didn’t practice so hard. Because of the way the Olympiad fell out, John wouldn’t go to the Olympics until his senior year of college. He figured he could afford to relax a little while he waited for that. So he didn’t compete, nor practice much, for three years.

Finally the Olympics came. Because he had been lax he felt a little nervous. But in the end he won the Gold by leaping over the arm of an easy chair while holding a bowl of popcorn. The official height was five and three-quarters inches. The crowd went wild, the judge called him a prodigy, and the sportscaster said it was the most remarkable athleticism he had seen in his whole life.