By Tom Weir and Debbie Becker, USA TODAY
04/02/2002 - Article Last Updated 11:49 PM ET
Pole vaulters long have been considered the daredevils of track and field, a gravity-challenging collection whose thrill-seeking flings into space puts them in the same company as sky divers, bungee jumpers and trapeze artists.
But for the third time in a little less than two months, a member of that adrenaline-driven fraternity has died in what ranks as the most lethal high school or college sports activity, renewing questions about safety standards for the event.
Samoa Fili II, 17, died Monday of head injuries from a fall Saturday, suffered while his father videotaped him competing for Wichita (Kan.) Southeast High School.
In February, head injuries from a failed vault killed Jesus Quesada, 16, of Clewiston (Fla.) High. Five days later, Penn State vaulter Kevin Dare, 19, who had told his father Ed it "wasn't cool" to compete while wearing a helmet, died after a fall at the Big Ten Conference indoor track and field championships.
Since then, Ed Dare has been campaigning for helmets to become mandatory for all scholastic vaulters. Legislation is pending in New York to do exactly that, but there is resistance from some who say a specific vaulting helmet doesn't exist, or that there is no proof that helmets won't cause new problems.
"Ask the people who say that if they've ever lost their son," Dare says. "I'm sick of hearing that. ... I keep bringing up hockey. There was a time when it wasn't cool to wear a helmet in that sport, either, and today nobody thinks about it."
Dare contends finances are driving much of the opposition to helmets.
"Track and field is not a revenue-generating sport, and the pole vault itself is by far the most expensive event to operate in track and field," Dare says. "The minute you start talking about reform, the question is, 'Where is the money going to come from?' "
Concerns about the event come at a time when the pole vault is at a peak in popularity that coincides with the current teen generation's fascination with so-called "extreme sports."
The pole vault got an unforeseen boost from the 2000 Summer Olympics, in which the USA's Stacy Dragila won the event's debut for women at the Games in a lengthy, enthralling competition.
But that momentum figures to suffer in the wake of this year's three deaths. Also, the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina, has labeled the pole vault the most dangerous event of those it has researched, and says that from 1983 to 2000 there was an average of one pole vault-related death a year.
Dare has been added to a safety committee of the U.S. Track and Field Association that will meet May 8 in Pittsburgh, with hopes of issuing safety recommendations.
Besides helmets, the committee might also issue guidelines on the sizes for landing areas, or pits, and for padding the box, the 8-inch deep rectangle where vaulters plant their fiberglass poles, and create the bend that springs them toward the crossbar. Their heights commonly reach 15 feet for high school boys, and 19 feet for the world's elite men. The world's top women are clearing 15 feet.
"Be tough when it comes to safety for kids," Dare urges. "At that age, we're all macho. My son was no different. I can remember sitting with Kevin at track meets and saying 'All those kids are wearing helmets, why aren't you?' "
The NCAA also will look at pole-vaulting safety at a meeting in June.
"We don't want to have a knee-jerk reaction," says Diane Howell, associate athletic director at the University of Houston and chair of the NCAA Division I men's and women's track and field committee. "We don't want to outlaw pole vaulting or something crazy like that."
Lloyd Mott, assistant director for the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, says that organization will oppose the legislation for mandatory helmets, because such equipment doesn't have a recognized standard.
Mott says his organization could be liable if it forces vaulters to wear helmets and then someone suffers an injury that's blamed on the helmet. Mott says he has seen helmets that are marketed for pole vaulters but still had a warning label that read "For roller blading and in-line skating only."
"That's one of our biggest concerns," Mott says. "We are all for safety. If there was something we could say definitely meets established safety standards we would probably be in support, but until that time ... "
Anything can happen
One of the things that makes the pole vault so dangerous is the unpredictability of what will happen when an attempt goes awry. Vaulters who lose control on the way up can be tossed to either side of the landing pit, or be tossed backward into the approach area, where there is no padding.
Fili's father saw such a scenario unfold at its terrifying worst when his son fell from about 12 feet at the Wichita East Relays.
"He cleared his first jump at 11 feet. On his next, something happened on his way up," Fili says. "He was shooting across. I could see him trying to pull back. But he was so fast and strong and had such momentum."
His son's body hit the back side of the landing pit padding, but the back of his head hit the pavement on the edge of the mat.
"When he hit his head, I knew he was hurt," Fili says. "I reacted. I ran over there, picked him up. He was unconscious. All I could do was kiss him and tell him I loved him."
Fili says he and his son talked about Dare's death, but that his son wasn't deterred from competing by that tragedy.
"Not Samoa," his father says. "He had confidence in everything he did in life. I know my son. If he had any fear, he would have come and talked to me."
Fili also expressed his son's passion for the event.
"He loved to pole vault," Fili says. "He worked out every day and didn't come home until 7 at night. He was dedicated to this sport. He didn't make it to (the state championships) last year and told me this year he was going to set the state record. He was on his way."
Fili says he is uncertain whether a helmet would have saved his son, and doesn't think they should be made mandatory.
"I think that's overreacting," Fili says. "Every sport is dangerous. Everything we do in our daily lives. I don't think my son's death should have any effect in the way pole vaulting is done. If I have another son, I would let him pole vault. I just think God had other plans for Samoa."
The Wichita school district is reviewing the accident.
Multiple skills required
One of the top manufacturers for the event's equipment is UCS, which produces mats and the Spirit pole. UCS general manager Steve Chappell cautions: "The risks that are clear in the pole vault need to be acknowledged at all times."
"It's not an event that can be mastered quickly," Chappell says. "Teaching progressions are very important. You can't just encourage a kid to go out and pole vault. Just carrying the pole is very awkward. There's just no substitute for a lot of repetition in practice. ... We put warning labels on our products, and we put out a teaching guide, and we feel now we want to be more involved in that area."
UCS landing pits are 21 1/2 feet wide and 24 feet long, and generally cost $8,000-$10,000. Chappell won't disclose UCS production numbers but estimates the event has gained about 10,000 participants in the last eight years, largely because of it has been added to women's meets. Total participation generally is estimated at 25,000 athletes nationally.
Chappell also is co-director of the Pole Vault Summit, an annual clinic in January that drew 1,500 coaches and athletes this year in Reno. He says participation has grown steadily by about 10% a year. That's part of the boom California started in the early 1990s when it made the pole vault a high school event for women.
"It offers some attractions that others don't," Chappell says. "It can reward of multiplicity of skills. ... The pole vault rewards the athletes with average speed and average strength, the kid that works hard."
On the helmet issue, Chappell says, "I don't really have a position on that. I think it should be a personal choice. I've been told there isn't a company that produces something that's called a pole vault helmet."
Chappell also acknowledges, "There's a tremendous concern now," and asks, "Has something changed? Why is it that we've seen the fatalities in such a short space of time? I can't make any link between these tragedies."
The answer may be that the pole vault simply attracts fearless athletes.
"A pole vaulter is a very special breed of athlete," says Dare, whose son also played football, and whose son's death resulted in his family establishing the Vaultforlife.com Web site.
"You can't overpower the sport with just strength, power or speed," Dare says. "It requires them all. It's kind of got a mystique to it."
But it's a mystique that, for now, includes a deadly shadow.