HomeSportsJohn Uelses, 16-foot pole vault first, dies at 85 - UnlistedNews

John Uelses, 16-foot pole vault first, dies at 85 – UnlistedNews

In the 1950s and 1960s, track and field athletes could become models on Wheaties boxes, stars on television, and objects of fascination for the media. There were Bob Richards, an ordained minister and pole vaulter nicknamed the Vicar of Vaulting, and Dick Fosbury, a high jumper whose distinctive vault became famous as the Fosbury Flop.

Richards and Fosbury died in February and March, prompting a final round of news coverage about their careers. Yet John Uelses, a fellow pole vaulter who accomplished the classic feat of the athletic celebrity era, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated, died seven months ago in San Diego without the public noticing.

His death, at age 85, on December 15 last year, was caused by complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said his daughter, Elyssa Robertson. Apparently, the only news of his death was a advertisement the family posted earlier this year on

Uelses (pronounced YOOL-sis) landed in the national spotlight in February 1962, when, as a 24-year-old Marine corporal, he became the first pole vaulter to clear 16 feet. The round number had a tidy appeal, and Uelses, though born in Germany, had the look of a flawless postwar American idol.

He accomplished that feat on February 2, 1962 at New York’s Madison Square Garden at the Millrose Games, one of the most prestigious indoor track and field competitions in the world at the time. It was such a cold winter’s night that Uelses’ poles hardened when he took them to the Garden from his hotel a few blocks away on Manhattan’s West Side, when the Garden was on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets. on a steam radiator in the basement of the Garden.

Uelses started the competition at 14 feet 6 inches and failed twice before surpassing that mark. He then raised the bar to 16 feet 1/4-inch and again missed twice. But on the third attempt (three attempts were allowed at each height), he made it, to the cheers of the sellout crowd. Moments after he landed in the hard sawdust pit, chaos erupted.

“The head range judge ran into the pit to get him out,” Howard Schmertz, assistant meet director (his father, Fred), recalled speaking with The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2012. “When he did that, all these photographers ran after him. One of them hit the upright and knocked over the bar. The upright was bent and the height was not measured after the vault”.

As a result, his record was not technically legitimate, although no one doubted that he had set it, surpassing his own previous record of 15 feet 10¼ inches. The next day, The New York Times proclaimed on its front page: “Marine becomes first to 16-foot pole vault.”

Uelses was unfazed by the technicalities in any case: He would just jump higher the next night in Boston, he said. And he did, clearing 16 feet ¾ inches.

A Hearst “news of the day” news from that year on he captured his place in the public imagination. To the sound of horns and bursts of applause, an announcer proclaimed Uelses “the happy world record breaker” and described his “personal quest for space” at an “unheard of peak”.

Much was made of his military status. His commanding general in the Marine Corps even took it upon himself to send out invitations to the Uelses press conferences.

“When he shows up in the uniform of the day for his regular duties,” Time magazine reported in 1962, Uelses “is a marine of the regiment. When he strips down to his boxers and shows up to a track meet, the swarthy, handsome, Berlin-born pole vaulter is the pride of the corps.”

Time added that he was receiving 300 fan letters a week. She was featured on the cover of the February 26, 1962 issue of Sports Illustrated.

The following month, Uelses became the first pole vaulter to jump 16 feet outdoors, in Santa Barbara, California, again reaching a career-high 16 feet ¾ inches.

His wins were disputed by purists and some of his rivals, who objected to his use of a relatively new fiberglass pole. It was lighter and provided greater curvature than bamboo, steel, or aluminum alternatives.

“Uelses is not a great jumper,” previous record holder Don Bragg, who used an aluminum pole, told Time. “Everything he did was a perfect stunt.”

Uelses replied: “Let Bragg speak. I will do the vault.

Hans Feigenbaum was born in Berlin on July 14, 1937. His father, a German soldier, died during World War II. When Hans was 11 or 12 years old, his mother sent him to Miami to live with an aunt, who adopted him. He changed his first name to John and took the aunt’s married name, Uelses. Because he didn’t speak English, he started school in Miami in fourth grade. He later became a citizen of the United States.

He was introduced to pole vaulting as a senior in high school. On the first day, he cleared 10 feet 6 inches. At the end of the season, he reached 13 feet and won the Florida high school championship. He then came to the Marines and then a year at the University of Alabama. He said that he left Alabama because he had not received training; “All they cared about was soccer,” he said.

After transferring to LaSalle University in Philadelphia, he became an NCAA champion. He graduated in 1965. During the Vietnam War, he was a Navy fighter pilot and, in later years, a high school jumper coach.

The current pole vault world record holder is 23-year-old Armand “Mondo” Duplantis of Sweden. The best current mark of him, set this year, is 20 feet 4 inches (indicated as 6.22 meters). Like most pole vaulters today, he uses a fiberglass pole.

In addition to his daughter, Mrs. Robertson, Uelses is survived by his wife, Mickey Uelses: one brother, Fred; a son, Marcos; two grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Weeks after Uelses’ moment of glory at Madison Square Garden, John Glenn orbited the Earth.

“He was the second Navy astronaut to go into space”, Uelses said The San Diego Union-Tribune. “I was the first.”

Frank Litsky, a veteran sportswriter for the Times, died in 2018.


Sara Marcus
Sara Marcus
Meet Sara Marcus, our newest addition to the Unlisted News team! Sara is a talented author and cultural critic, whose work has appeared in a variety of publications. Sara's writing style is characterized by its incisiveness and thought-provoking nature, and her insightful commentary on music, politics, and social justice is sure to captivate our readers. We are thrilled to have her join our team and look forward to sharing her work with our readers.


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