Washington’s Brian Sternberg might have become history’s first 20-foot pole vaulter, but a tragic trampoline accident placed him in a wheelchair the rest of his life.
It saddened, but hardly surprised anyone close to him, that Brian Sternberg died May 23 following a “convalescence” that spanned 10 presidential administrations. In fact, many of Sternberg’s family and friends expressed amazement that the former world record holder in the pole vault, who starred for the University of Washington in the early 1960s, lasted as long as he did given the agony he endured for 50 years.
“He had spent the last 14-15 months in the hospital,” said Helen Sternberg, Sternberg’s mother and long-time caretaker. “His heart and lungs finally gave out.”
“I actually thought he would go May 25, 50 years after the fact,” said close friend, e-mail pal and one-time teammate Phil Shinnick, himself a UW track legend.
“I thought he was going to go last year,” said another friend, Bill Knudsen, who ran track with Sternberg in high school. “We almost lost him then.”
Sternberg, born June 21, 1943 in Seattle, graduated from Shoreline High School in 1961 and enrolled at the University of Washington later that fall. A year later, as a 19-year-old sophomore, Sternberg burst upon the world track and field scene like no other Husky athlete in his sport before or since.
After winning the pole vault at the 1963 NCAA Championships by clearing 16-4¼ at Albuquerque, NM., Sternberg set world records in the event three times in a seven-week span. The first was April 27 in front of 37,432 at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, when Sternberg jumped 16-5, taking the world mark away from Finland’s Pentti Nikula, whose 16-2½ stood for a year.
On May 25, the date Shinnick referenced above, Sternberg increased the world mark to 16-7 at the California Relays in Modesto, within an hour of Shinnick, also a sophomore, establishing a world standard of 27-4 in the long jump.
Shinnick’s record would be argued in court and before arbitration panels for the next 40 years and is an amazing tale in itself. But for a few days, two Washington track athletes, friends, roommates and sophomores, made sports headlines worldwide.
Sternberg had one more record in him. On June 7, he sailed over the crossbar at 16-8 at the Compton Relays in Compton, CA. Two weeks later, June 21 in St. Louis, Sternberg didn’t set a record, but he won the National AAU Track and Field Championships, the premier track event in the U.S. at the time, with a jump of 16-4. He came thisclose to clearing 16-9.
At that point, Sternberg became the favorite over American rivals John Pennel and Fred Hansen to not only win the gold medal at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, but to become the first vaulter to clear 17 feet. Sternberg was already the first in the world to attempt it, and he barely missed.
Sternberg confided to friends after his near miss that 17 feet – and well beyond – was within his grasp. He was making the transition from a metal to a pliable fiberglass model and still getting the hang of it.
“I had no doubt he was going to be the first man to clear 20 feet,” said his UW coach, Stan Hiserman. “That’s how good he was.”
But Sternberg never made it to Tokyo. Indeed, he didn’t even make it to the noon speech he was scheduled to deliver to the North Central Kiwanis Club July 5 in Wallingford.
On July 2, Sternberg, an accomplished gymnast, and the only state athlete since World War II to hold a world track and field record, arrived at Hec Edmundson Pavilion about 8 p.m. to train on a trampoline in preparation for a trip to the Soviet Union.
On the basis of his superb showings in Modesto and Compton, Sternberg was selected to represent the U.S. in its annual dual meet against the Soviets.
Working with UW gymnast Bob Hall, which he often did when plagued by shin splints, Sternberg executed a double-back somersault with a twist, a move he had made thousands of times, including once — on a crazy lark — off the Montlake Bridge. In fact, the evening before, Sternberg participated in a demonstration with the Greater Seattle Gymnastics Club at Tacoma’s Clover Park High and performed the double-back somersault with a twist.
But this time, Sternberg landed awkwardly on his neck. He didn’t break it, but he couldn’t move. An ambulance was summoned at about 8:30 p.m.
“It’s a difficult stunt,” Washington gymnastics coach Eric Hughes told The Seattle Post-Intelligencer hours after the accident. “Brian had done it many times before and several times before the accident. He just seemed to lose control of his body.”
“I landed in the middle of the trampoline where no one could reach me,” Sternberg said in an interview years later. “I yelled at the top of my voice, ‘I’m paralyzed! I’m paralyzed!’ I knew it was bad right away. What I didn’t know was how bad. When I realized how bad it was, it came as a shock.”
“I’ve been around a million athletes,” said Knudsen, a long-time front office executive and marketing specialist for the Seattle Mariners. “He had a body like a god. He was a world-class gymnast. He could do vertical pushups while standing on his hands. He had an unbelievable chest and arms. He had the original six pack (abs), only Brian was about a 12 pack.”
Two months after the accident, Greater Seattle Inc., charged with promoting Seattle to the world, donated all of its profits, about $3,000, from an Oakland Raiders-Kansas City Chiefs exhibition game at Husky Stadium to a trust fund set up in Sternberg’s name.
A special halftime show for the Aug. 17 contest drew several notable athletes, including two-time Olympic decathlon champion Bob Mathias. A clutch of star milers, many who beat the four-minute barrier, ran a special “Brian Sternberg Mile.” Vault rivals John Pennel and John Uelses put on an exhibition for 13,330 onlookers.
It took all of halftime, all of the third quarter and most of the fourth for the vaulters to complete their work, Pennel providing Seattle fans the highest vault they had ever witnessed, 16-6½.
Imagine the scene: vaulters shooting into the sky while football players collided nearby and bands blared in the stands. Sternberg watched the spectacle from his bed at nearby University Hospital.
In the weeks following the accident, doctors feared they would lose Sternberg, and they might have if he hadn’t been such a superbly conditioned athlete. But Sternberg never walked again. A quadriplegic, for many years he had difficulty speaking above a whisper.
“I used to go visit him and could barely make out what he was saying,” said Shinnick.
On the day of the accident, Shinnick was in Eugene, OR., for a competition. He heard about Sternberg’s injury on the radio.
“We were friends and teammates and incredibly connected,” Shinnick said. “It was devastating to hear. That took the heart right out of me. Right after that, I went to Alaska for two months to try and sort it out.”
Tethered to a high-tech wheelchair and unable to do anything by himself – his mother, Helen, tended to his needs — Sternberg had 50 years to sort things out and mull a cruel fate that not only denied him further athletic glory and the fulfillment of his dream, to become a high school science teacher, but just a plain, ordinary life.
“Brian was off charts,” said Knudsen. “He lived so much longer than the average quadriplegic. He lived with pain and agony for 50 years.”
“And he never once complained,” said Helen.
“People ask if I’m mad at the world or mad at God, but being mad doesn’t do me any good,” Sternberg said in one of his last interviews. “Sometimes I feel I was cheated a bit, but what can I do about it?”
A few years ago, when Knudsen noticed how slow and outdated Sternberg’s personal computer was, Knudsen made a dozen phone calls and in about three hours raised $5,000 to equip Sternberg with a state-of-the-art Mac. Sternberg pecked out e-mails using a small wand in his teeth.
In 1996, all efforts having failed to significantly improve his quality of life, Sternberg went to Germany for an operation that cost $100,000. Knudsen helped direct that fundraising effort as well.
“The operation on his spinal cord allowed Sternberg to breathe deeper and easier, to speak more clearly and in greater volume and to remain upright for longer periods, which had the effect of improving his feeling of well being,” said Knudsen. “It allowed him to get vertical for about 10 hours a day. But these past few months, his body finally just gave out.”
A few months following his trampoline accident, Sternberg received the 1963 Helms World Trophy, awarded to the top athlete on each of the six major continents. He subsequently entered the Washington Sports Hall of Fame (1980), Husky Hall of Fame (1981) and North American Pole Vault Hall of Fame (2005).
Two months ago, Sternberg was informed that his name would be added to the Penn Relays “Wall of Fame” for setting a meet and world record at Franklin Field in Philadelphia in April of 1963.
“He was the most gifted athlete that I have ever known,” said Knudsen, “and one of the classiest people on the planet. Everyone who knew him loved him, and I am so very proud to have called him my friend, from kindergarten to today.
“I hope they have a good pole vault setup in heaven, as I know Brian would like another shot at that record.”
A public memorial service, still in the works, will be held June 22 at First Free Methodist Church, near Seattle Pacific University, at 2 p.m. The family will provide additional details when they are complete.