Run Racing’s CEO And Olympic Gold Medalist Bob Seagren
July 17, 2012 - Looking back 40-plus years, Bob Seagren, one of the world’s top pole vault athletes at the time and who graced the cover of a 1967 issue of Sports Illustrated, recalled the life-changing experiences as a participant in two Olympic Games.
A native of Pomona, Seagren graduated from USC in 1968 – the same year he attended the Olympics in Mexico City and turned 21. There, he won the gold in the pole vault event. Four years later, Seagren earned himself a silver medal in 1972 at the Olympic Games in Munich.
After Munich, Seagren and his fellow athletes started a professional track tour that he said, “died a slow death by 1976, right before the next Olympics.” Due to an Olympic rule at the time, Seagren was considered a professional athlete and could no longer qualify for the Olympics.
He transitioned out of the role of professional athlete and explored various business opportunities in several sectors. Seagren has owned a travel agency, restaurants and a marketing firm; he worked for international shoe brand Puma as vice president of sales and marketing for a while; and performed as an actor and made special appearances on various television shows. “I dabbled around in a lot of different things, looking for fun and trying to make a buck,” he said.
In the 1980s, Seagren recalled participating in the only two half-marathons he ever ran, both of which were in Long Beach. Nearly two decades later, he heard from some colleagues that the Long Beach Marathon was in financial trouble and was inspired to help. “I put in an application with the city in January 2001 to run it, and by April I got the permit,” Seagren recalled. He quickly formed International City Racing, which later changed its name to RUN Racing, and the marathon returned to financial stability.
RUN Racing, based in Long Beach, specializes in developing, managing and implementing events in the fields of health, fitness and endurance. RUN Racing’s signature event is the Long Beach International City Bank Marathon, which is scheduled for its 28th year. The race is on October 7, 2012.
LBBJ: We've heard people talk about the "Olympic experience." What did it mean to you as a 20-something representing the U.S. on the Olympic stage?
Seagren: I was a 20-year-old in 1968. It's pretty exciting. The Olympics, unlike a Super Bowl or World Series, doesn't happen every year. It's every four years. So it makes it a little more difficult for a lot of people, when you look at them, especially with swimmers, gymnasts and some other sports where your body can change so much in four years that you outgrow your sport. Timing has a lot to do with it, and making an Olympic team is a very difficult thing. Just making the U.S. Olympic Team is very difficult because we have such depth of talent in all sports. That's the major challenge, just getting on the Olympic team. Then, to eventually win a medal is the frosting on the cake.
LBBJ: Did it sink in that you were part of the Olympics when you were there?
Seagren: It does. When you compete a lot, you get used to the routine of competition the day of and the day before and so forth. But I think it hits everybody during part of the opening ceremonies. All of the pageantry and all of the athletes from the different nations marching into the stadium – that's when it hit me. That's when I had the realization, "Whoa. This is not just another track meet. This is a different animal. It's the Olympic Games." I think that's when you start getting a little nervous and you start thinking about how the whole world is watching.
LBBJ: There are always conflicts going on between countries, no matter what era, what time frame or what country you are from. Do you think conflicts permeate the Olympics, or can athletes leave it all behind when they compete?
Seagren: Again, I was in [the Olympic Games of] '68 and '72, and they had their fair share of controversies that were going on not only at the Olympic Games in that particular country at the time, but the world situation. I think you could almost say 99 percent of the athletes are there for a whole different reason, and world conflict is miles and miles away from their thought process. You are there to perform, do your best and hopefully are victorious.
In my communication with other athletes, world politics was not even discussed. It is just another realm. When you are there at the Olympics for those 16 days, I think those athletes have the good fortune to be able to travel around the world. It's not necessarily that they are more educated, but they are more experienced. They see how other people live and experience life in different parts of the world. I think that is one of the great things about athletics. It really opens your eyes to – certainly for Americans – how lucky we are to live in America and have all of the things we have available to us.
LBBJ: Let's go back to your roots in the sport. Tell us what led you to pole vaulting in particular, and how you became one of the world's top pole vaulting athletes.
Seagren: I was 11 years old, in the 5th grade. I have a brother who is five years older. He came home from school one day and said, "Hey, I've learned this thing called pole vaulting," so we started pole vaulting in the backyard. We used bamboo poles and we started jumping over the fence, and then the clotheslines and just having fun.
I spent a lot of time just using the pole as transportation. We used to put the pole on the ground, stand on the garage roof and then swing on the pole over to the house roof. We used to make a game of how far around the city block we could go without ever touching the ground. We would go from a fence to a roof. Our neighbors would tell our parents, "Your kids are on our roof again!" It was more swinging on a pole than vaulting over heights. I didn't have a track meet until I got into seventh grade. So for two years I was just playing with a pole as a means of transportation with my older brother. Everything was a game, of course. I just became comfortable with a pole in my hands and started competing in 7th grade and continued from there.
LBBJ: So when you were in 7th grade, did your school have a pole vaulting team?
Seagren: We had one track meet, and I won with seven feet. I won the 7th grade class competition or something like that.
LBBJ: So that was your first win?
Seagren: It was. (Laughs.)
LBBJ: Can you describe the process of pole vaulting?
Seagren: A horizontal run to a vertical lift using a pole. It's very similar to high jumping, to some degree, because you have to run and leap off the ground. With pole vaulting, you have a 16-foot pole in your hands, and you're using the pole as a fulcrum point to get your body up and over a cross bar. The faster you run, and the higher you can hold the pole, changes the fulcrum point of your swing.
Before the fiberglass pole was invented, there were some real limitations on how high you could vault because, without the pole bending and absorbing the shock from the horizontal run to a vertical lift, you could hold a pole really high but if you weren't fast enough or tall enough, when you plant that pole it would pretty much rip your arms out of their sockets. The fiberglass pole enabled the vaulters to jump much higher because it could really absorb that takeoff shock.
I grew up right at that time when the fiberglass pole was becoming popular and people were trying to figure out how it works by bending. In the early 1960s the world record went up almost two feet within a year because of the switch to fiberglass. I got onto fiberglass in high school in 1962. I was right in that time, luckily. In my formative years I trained using the fiberglass pole. I hadn't developed a lot of habits with the rigid pole, so I was able to adapt. There were a lot of good vaulters at that time who couldn't make the transition because there was a whole different technique required.
LBBJ: Was there any controversy in the Olympics with the switch from rigid poles to fiberglass poles?
Seagren: No. The Olympic rules state that a pole vaulting pole could be made out of any material, can be any diameter, any length. The only limitation is that you cannot have any buildup or something as a hand-hold on it. You cannot have more than two layers of thickness of tape on the pole. You can't make something that is going to prevent your hand from sliding. No grips. They have no restrictions on wood, aluminum or fiberglass. The rigid poles were made out of steel, aluminum, bamboo and fiberglass. When they started bending the fiberglass, that's when everything changed.
LBBJ: When you competed in the 1972 Olympics, would you say that most of the athletes were using fiberglass?
Seagren: Oh, 100 percent, even in the 1964 Olympics. From the 1960 Olympics in Rome to the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, the equipment made a 100 percent change.
LBBJ: Have you ever helped train up-and-coming pole vaulting athletes?
Seagren: I've tried. I've worked with a few, but I don't think I have the coach mentality. It was difficult for me. I think pole vaulting is a very difficult thing to teach somebody because if they don't have a natural ability to comprehend this horizontal run to a vertical leap, and the planting of the pole and how that entire dynamic works, running with this 16-foot-plus implement that you are sticking in the ground . . . I've had a lot of good, strong, very athletic people I thought would make great vaulters, and just couldn't get the hang of how to do the takeoff. It's funny. But I think some people just naturally gravitate to it, and others don't.
LBBJ: How do you think the Olympics made you a better person?
Seagren: It's totally changed my life. I think you could look at any Olympian that makes the team and has some degree of notoriety or success and they would say the same thing. It's inevitable that it's going to change your life. It's going to open doors. For me, I've done things I never thought I would ever do. I wasn't the greatest student. I will admit that school wasn't my focus. But if it hadn't of been for the Olympic Games and really having a focus on athletics and having a goal . . . it's the same in business. You've got to have short-term and long-term goals, what you want to achieve and where you are going. Athletics teaches you that.
You have to have patience, and it's also a work ethic that you develop. You don't just go out there and have somebody hand it to you. You've got to work for it and prepare. Some people are lucky to have coaches and entourages that help them get there, but it does take work. I didn't have a coach because nobody knew how to teach fiberglass pole vaulting, but I never would have done it if facilities and equipment weren't available where I could go and practice. I am very grateful for the people who made that available and helped me along the way. Without it, you're not going to go anywhere. It changes the lives of people. I'd probably be pumping gas in Pomona, where I grew up, if I hadn't had sports and the Olympic Games.
LBBJ: Considering, for a moment, that public schools are cutting athletics due to budget constraints, it must be difficult to see that when you have such an appreciation for the opportunities athletics gave to you.
Seagren: It is sad. How do you motivate kids and keep them motivated? As a parent, you try to expose them to as many things as you can, and you hope that they will gravitate toward something that they enjoy doing.
If it weren't fun I would have never done it. Pole vaulting was fun. I don't think I ever once thought that it was a job or work. I obviously had fun doing it, and the training and working out was a means to an end. The icing was that I had weekly competitions. I had a constant check and balance, because if I didn't work out that hard that week, I probably wasn't going to do that well in competition. It's a wonderful mechanism that keeps it going. It's like climbing a ladder. You don't go from the bottom rung to the top rung of a ladder. You've got to take it step-by-step and climb it. That's life. To some degree, you have to have the right mix of success and failure to keep you motivated. If you win every single week, it becomes mundane and boring. You've got to experience a loss or something that keeps you motivated.
I've seen a lot of athletes over the years who have had successful careers, and I think that most of them will tell you that it is getting that right balance of success and failure that gets you to the world's best or that Olympic medal. I've seen athletes with so much success, and then they just disappear. You wonder why and what happened.
LBBJ: You were at the 1972 Olympics in Munich when the Israeli athletes were killed. How were you affected by that incident?
Seagren: I lost a good friend. The Israeli women's track coach was a fairly close friend. I would see him at track meets around Europe and whatnot. I was in the recreation center in the Olympic Village in Munich playing foosball with him that evening. I was with another athlete, a guy named Buddy Williamson, a friend of mine. He wasn't on the Olympic team, but he was staying in my room at the Olympic Village. How we got through security, I don't know. But the Israeli women's track coach was with an athlete who was either a weight lifter or a wrestler. We played foosball until about 10 o'clock at night, then we walked out. Our building was about two buildings down from theirs. We said goodnight, went upstairs and went to bed. By that time, the terrorists had already entered their compound, and when they [the Israelis] opened the door that's when they had the confrontation and one of them was killed right then and there.
I got up at 6 a.m. the next morning, and I had finished my competition the day before. So I got in my car, picked up my family and we were going to drive around Europe for two weeks. It wasn't until three days after the whole thing, when I was in Italy, that I found out by reading the paper. I flew back to Munich for the closing ceremonies, and it was a night and day change in the atmosphere of when I left and when I came back. It was tragic. Buddy and I, the friend who was with me that night, always said, "What if we had gone with them, just to hang out in their room for a while? What would have happened to us?" It hit way close to home. It certainly changed the Olympics.
My parents literally walked in and out of the Olympic Village in Mexico City in 1968 almost every day. In Munich, I didn't have an official car, but it was the same color as the official cars. So I drove in and out every day. Security was not that tight. Security was tighter in Munich than it was in Mexico City, but then in Montreal, the next Olympics after that, the security was just so over the top. You can imagine what London is going to be like. It's sad to some degree because it really changed the Olympic movement. I don't think it's changed the Olympics, but it's added such a burden to the host country now, and the millions and millions of dollars in additional cost.
LBBJ: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Seagren: I feel very fortunate to have participated in a couple of Olympics and be able to have a couple of what are the ultimate rewards for participating. I am proud of it. It's a great feeling of pride, satisfaction and accomplishment to be able to say you were and are an Olympian. It's a great thrill.
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