You can do it, don’t give up. In America your dream can come true, and God will help you.” So proclaims Bob Richards, 59, the 1952 and 1956 Olympic pole-vault champion and former Church of the Brethren minister. As Wheaties spokesman from 1957 to 1970, the Reverend Bob also made “Breakfast of Champions” a household phrase, and he continues to sell his dream with motivational pep talks on the corporate lecture circuit.
No one has taken in Bob’s positive philosophy more completely than his own son Brandon, 18, who at 6′ and 165 pounds is the best high-school pole-vaulter in America and a prospect for the 1988 Olympics. Brandon’s goal, he says, “is to be the first pole-vaulter to win three Olympic gold medals.” He’s got the determination. At a meet in Santa Barbara, Calif, last March, he suffered a heart-stopping fall onto steel and concrete (“I thought he’d broken his back,” says his mother, Joan, 47, a former actress). Brandon fainted from pain. Yet there he was at the July 11 All-Comers Meet at the University of Oregon. Though his strained ligaments were healed, he wasn’t sure he was ready to compete. “I didn’t have that explosive feeling in my legs that I usually have,” he says. As the event unfolded, he cleared 16′, 16’6″, then 17 and 17’6″. On his fifth vault he soared a full 18’2″ to set a new high school outdoor world record. “I’ve been on cloud nine ever since,” he says.
Brandon has had vaulting ambitions since his childhood. “When I was old enough to hoist myself up on the front edge of the living room trophy case and see those two gold medals,” he says, “I began to realize who my dad was, and what my family had done before me.” At 5, he asked his father to build him a makeshift pole-vault pit. At 6, recalls his mother, he warned her dinner guest, pole-vault champion Steve Smith, “Someday I’m gonna break your record.”
The will to win seems to be a family trait. “In a meet if someone gets ahead of me, I can’t stand it,” says Brandon. His stepbrother Bobby, 35, second of three children from Bob Sr.’s first marriage, was an All-American vaulter at San Jose State University. Twins Tammy and Tommy, 15, are both competitive figure skaters.
Brandon’s preeminence has exacted sacrifices that most families would never have borne. Last winter the Texas State Board of Education limited high school athletes to eight hours training time a week. “I’d use that up by Tuesday,” says Brandon. To get around that, the family uprooted from their Santo, Texas ranch to a motel in Santa Barbara, where Brandon entered San Marcos High School as a senior. An added bonus: Brandon could then train with the Los Angeles-based 1984 pole-vaulting Olympic silver medalist, Mike Tully.
Brandon, who will enter UCLA in the fall, is interested in science, which may be a factor in his success. “Pole vaulting,” he says, “is geometry in action.” Wind, temperature, weather—all can affect a pole vault, and Brandon takes up to seven poles to each meet. For Bob, who still competes (he plans to enter the National Masters in Indianapolis this month), just the switch from the rigid steel pole to the flexible fiberglass pole is, he says, “like going from straight tumbling to the trampoline.”
Bob professes mixed feelings about Brandon’s pursuit of new vaulting heights. “The higher they go, the more dangerous it gets,” he says. Adds Brandon: “Dad’s never pushed me. He’s been great about letting me find my own direction.” “Right,” jokes Joan. “Bob’s always said Brandon could go anywhere he wanted, as long as it was 19′ high.”