Way back in the days before fiberglass poles, when vaulters used bamboo poles and 15 feet was an awesome height, the Reverend Robert Richards was the best pole vaulter in the world. Born on February 20th, 1926, in Champaign, Illinois, Richards attended the University of Illinois. During the late 1940's and early 1950's he was nine times the pole vaulting champion of the United States and twice the champion of the Olympic Games.
Reverend Richards underwent his Olympic baptism in 1948 in London, when, at the age of 22, he placed third and collected a bronze medal. An American named O. Guinn Smith was the winner. By 1952 in Helsinki, Richards was clearly the world's best vaulter. In fact, he and Lon Laz were the only two vaulters in the Olympics who had ever cleared the magic height of 15 feet—far above the existing Olympic record of 14 feet, three-and-a-quarter inches.
In the Helsinki Games, when the bar went up to 14 feet, 5 inches, Richards and Laz suddenly found themselves with competition—a Swede named Ragnar Lundberg and a Russian named Peter Denisenko. All four men broke the Olympic mark.
Then the bar was raised to 14 feet, nine-and-an-eighth inches. The two Americans succeeded; the two Europeans failed. The bar went up again—to just above 14 feet, 11 inches. Laz tried first—and missed. Then Richards missed. On their second attempts, both men missed again. Now they were down to their final attempts. Laz failed, leaving Richards one last chance to win the gold medal.
The 26-year-old minister raced down the runway, planted his bamboo pole, pushed himself up, snaked across the bar, and—safely over—tumbled into the sawdust pit. He looked up, saw that the bar was still in place, and exploded in celebration. He jumped. He yelled. He danced. He waved his arms over his head, and he skipped down the runway, blowing kisses to the crowd. A Soviet vaulter named Viktor Knjazev rushed up to Richards and wrapped him in a congratulatory hug.
Now that he had won his first Olympic gold medal, Richards attempted to become the first vaulter ever to clear 15 feet in Olympic competition. As always, he gave his best, but he had been competing for four and a half hours, and he was far from fresh. Although he missed at 15 feet, he had accomplished his objective—he would return to the United States an Olympic champion.
Four years later, in Melbourne, Australia, Richards was not supposed to have much difficult defending his title. He had by then cleared 15 feet so many times, with such ease, that any lesser height hardly seemed a challenge. But in the early stages of the 1956 Olympic competition, for reasons hard to fathom, Richards twice tried 13 feet, one-and-a-half inches and twice failed to clear the bar. On his last chance, on the brink of elimination, Richards succeeded. He then went on to set an Olympic record at 14 feet, 11-and-a-quarter inches.
The pole vault record is now more than 18 feet, and vaulters using fiberglass poles scoff at 15-foot jumpers. But the brilliance of Robert Richards remains clear: He is still the only two-time pole vaulting champion in the history of the Olympics.