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First Athlete to Pole-Vault 17 Feet

Track & Field On This Day

On this day, in 1963 American pole vaulter, and four-time world record holder, John Pennel cleared 5.20 m (17 ft., 0.75 inches) at his first attempt in Coral Gables, Florida


  August 24, 1963

Sport: Track & Field


American pole vaulter John Pennel became the first athlete to surpass 17 feet when he cleared 5.20 meters (17 feet, 0.75 inches) at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, on Aug. 24, 1963.
The 23-year-old athlete out of Northeast Louisiana State College — now known as University of Louisiana Monroe — completed his record-breaking vault using a fiberglass pole, while most other vaulters were still using wooden poles.

Pennel was a two-time Olympian in the event but never medaled, and he held the world record in the event on eight occasions throughout his career, including six times in 1963 alone. In just over five months that year, he added more than 9 inches onto his own world record. The first was when he completed a 4.95-meter (16 feet, 3 inches) vault on March 23, 1963. He incrementally increased that world record before his 17-foot vault in August of that year.
Americans Fred Hansen and Bob Seagren topped Pennel’s 17-foot record before Pennel regained the record on July 23, 1966, with a vault of 5.34 meters (17 feet, 6 inches). Pennel recorded his final world record on June 21, 1969, with a vault of 15.44 meters (17 feet, 10 inches).

Pennel was recognized as the nation’s best amateur athlete in 1963 when the AAU gave him the James E. Sullivan Award. He died in 1993 and was posthumously inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2004.

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