Sport: Track and Field
Induction Year: 1976
Records are made to be broken, and that is exactly what John Thomas Pennel did as an athlete at Northeast Louisiana State College in the early 1960s.
He was the Sergey Bubka of his era, coming along at a time when pole vaulters were switching from aluminum poles to fiberglass. They raised the standard for the world record two feet – from 15-10 ¼ by George Davies in 1961 (he was the fist vaulter to break a world record with the fiberglass pole) to 17-10 ¼ by Pennel in 1969.
Pennel was the first man to clear 17 feet. A generation later, world class vaulters are still using the “Pennel Technique” which he developed.
Americans dominated the event until the 1960s, winning all of the Olympic gold medals and monopolizing world records. But Chris Papaniclaou of Greece broke the 18-foot barrier in 1970. That marked the only time in the event's history that three barriers (16-,17-and 18 feet) were surpassed in less than 10 years. More than 20 years later, only two more have fallen. Before the 1960s, the last two were 15 feet by the legendary Cornelius Warmerdam in 1940 and 14 feet by Sabin Carr of the United States in 1927 – both using bamboo poles.
In less than six months in 1963, Pennel cleared 16 feet or better in 21 meets, broke or tied the world record seven times and became the first man to clear 17 feet. He won the Sullivan Award, presented by the Amateur Athletic Union to top amateur athlete in the United States, and was named world “Athlete of the Year” by Track and Field News.
“John Pennel is a true champion in every aspect and richly deserves this great honor,” Northeast coach Bon Groseclose said after Pennel won the Sullivan Award.
He was born on July 25, 1940, in Memphis, Tenn., and grew up in Miami, Fla., where his father was a welding equipment supplier. Pennel played halfback for the Coral Gables High football team and participated in the rope climb in gymnastics, but his chief claim to fame was in track and field. He was the national Junior Olympics champion in the pole vault, and accepted a scholarship to Northeast – where Groseclose was developing a small-college power built around twins Dave Styron and Don Styron.
Even before Pennel switched to the fiberglass pole, he was making history. Using an aluminum pole, he was the first college freshman to clear 15 feet. He bent that pole, but didn't switch to fiberglass until the middle of his sophomore year. Then it took him nearly two years to get the hang of it.
In March of 1963, Pennel's career literally blasted into orbit. He was soaring higher than the facilities were prepared for, so meet officials had to improvise by stacking soft drink cases under the pole vault standards.
“They would ask John, ‘How high do you want us to raise the bar, one case of two?'” Groseclose recalled.
It all started when Pennel cleared 15-9 on a rainy, windy day in the Shreveport Relays. Five days later, he borrowed a pole from a fellow competitor and set his first world record, clearing the bar at 16-3 in the Memphis Relays to break the existing mark by a half-inch. He broke his own record twice more the following month, in meets at Natchitoches and Monroe, and broke or tied the record four more times that summer – capping a sensational year with the world's first 17-foot vault in the Gold Coast AAU meet in his home town of Miami.
He called that shot five months earlier, after clearing 16-3 in Memphis for his first world record. “I believe I'll have to come pretty close to 17 feet by the end of the college season to still hold the record,” he said.
Pennel, who was 5-10 and weighed 170 pounds, was a remarkable all-around athlete. He held the school record of 23-8 in the long jump, and had a personal best of 191-9 in the javelin, set an unofficial national record of 315 feet in the softball throw and ran the 100 yard dash in 9.8 seconds. But some of his most remarkable athletic performances were off the track.
Groseclose said Pennel and his friend, All-American triple jumper Doug Constant, would walk on their hands on the dormitory balcony railing from their room to the end of the dorm if the “pot” raised by other kids was big enough.
“One of our assistant coaches once saw them jump over a Volkswagen in their street clothes,” Groseclose said.
Before Pennel became a pole vaulter, he was a musician. His mother insisted that both of her sons learn to play musical instruments while they were still wearing knickers. An older brother, William, chose the clarinet. John's choice was the Sousaphone. But after he saw University of Florida vaulter Henry Wadsworth competing in his specialty, Pennel traded his Sousaphone for a pole and turned his back yard into a training gym where he would climb on ropes, swing on a chinning bar and bounce on a trampoline.
The only goal that eluded Pennel in his pole vaulting career was an Olympic gold medal. Americans Fred Hansen and Bob Seagren won gold medals in the 1964 Olympics and 1968 Olympics, respectively.
In the 1968 Mexico City Games, Pennel cleared the crossbar at 17-8 1.2 – Seagren's winning height – but his pole passed under the bar. The International Amateur Athletics Federation had just passed a rule allowing this, but they had decreed that it wouldn't go into effect until the following May. With that rule, Pennel would've won at least a bronze medal – and had a shot at the gold. Instead he finished fifth as only two inches separated the top five.
He was the NAIA national champion in 1963, AAU national champion in 1965 and was ranked No. 1 in the world in both 1965 and 1966.
After he settled in California, where he is in the banking business and makes television commercials, Pennel met another athlete who would be inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame – Baltimore Colts quarterback Bert Jones.
“I was one of those kids stacking the soft drink cases under the standards when you vaulted in Ruston,” Jones told him.
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