Still as a panther, vaulter Billy Olson waits at the end of the runway, clutching his fiberglass pole like a battering ram. Suddenly he hurls himself into motion, plunging toward the pit, planting his pole, and soaring up and over the crossbar. How does it feel? “Like some wild ride at the fair,” he reports in his West Texas drawl.
Speaking softly but carrying the big stick of his trade, Olson, 24, has catapulted himself out of Abilene, Texas and into an unofficial world record. Last February, in Toronto, he leaped 19’¼”—higher indoors than any human not shot from a cannon. Now, with the outdoor season beginning, he has his sights set on the official world record of 19’¾”, held by Vladimir Polyakov of the Soviet Union. Next year he’ll be aiming for Olympic gold in Los Angeles. “In track and field,” he explains, “the only way you can ever reap benefits from your athletic career is to win a gold medal. You can be a million-time world record holder, and if you don’t have that medal, you’re lost.”
Unimpressed by Olson’s heroics, a few pole-vaulting traditionalists insist today’s record holders couldn’t reach the celestial heights they do if it weren’t for their springy fiberglass poles. Former Olympian Don Bragg has even offered to bet Billy $10,000 that Olson couldn’t clear 16’¾” with the metal pole Bragg used to set a record of 15’9½” in 1959. Olson doesn’t doubt he could do it, but says he can’t take time off from competing to practice with the stiffer pole.
In terms of physique, the 6’2″, 170-pound athlete from Abilene Christian University is a match for any of the great vaulters of the past. Olson hoisted his first barbell in kindergarten, though he didn’t take up vaulting till high school, when a track coach lured him out of a sign-up line for the golf team. Now he weight-lifts two and a half hours every day but Sunday, forging melon-size biceps that strain the seams of his sleeves, and rounds out his daily training with gymnastics and running.
The rest of the Olson clan confines its workouts to tracking down bail jumpers. Run by Billy’s father, Bill Sr., the S O S Bail Bond Co. employs both Billy’s paternal grandmother, Eula Mae, and his kid sister, Donna, 21, recently voted Abilene’s “Miss 10½.” Should the customers prove unexpectedly frisky, their cases are referred to Bill Sr.’s partner, Don “The Lawman” Slatton, a 250-pound professional wrestler.
Billy’s mother, Barbara, a school nurse, describes her son as “a one-way guy,” meaning he does things only one way—his own. Raised a Baptist, he once wore his hair long and considered himself a free spirit. Then his girlfriend, Suzanne Levy, 23, brought him into the fundamentalist Church of Christ, which frowns on drinking and dancing. Today, shorn of excess hair and rough edges, he helps lead a weekly junior high huddle group at the church, and he approaches vaulting with a pole and a prayer.
“I see myself as a little hometown boy from Abilene,” says Billy, but a world record might extend his horizons. A public relations major in college, he can imagine himself slipping into a TV sportscaster’s blazer when his track-and-field career is concluded. Beneath his unassuming facade beats the heart of a showman. His favorite athletes: tantrum-tossing tennis star John McEnroe (“I’d rather watch him than anybody”) and Dallas Cowboy wide receiver Butch Johnson, famed for his interpretive post-touchdown dance steps. Decidedly low-key himself, Olson is hard put to explain the contrast between his performing style and his heroes’. Would he like to introduce just a tad more flamboyance into his sport? “It’s hard to create controversy in vaulting,” he says. “But I would if I could.”