On July 2, 1963 I walked to the mailbox after milking cows on my father’s farm in the Skagit Valley in the State of Washington and retrieved our family mail. I opened the Seattle Times and saw the headlines that devastated me. Brian Sternberg, University of Washington Husky pole vaulter was paralyzed in a trampoline accident at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. He was paralyzed from the waist down.
I had taken up pole vaulting two years earlier in my Junior High School in Mount Vernon, Washington. My hero was Brian Sternberg. I followed Husky sports news every week from our small town north of Seattle. During the Spring of 1961, my father helped me to set up a pole vaulting pit. I used a bamboo pole taken from the center of a carpet roll when we put in wall-to-wall carpeting in our house. My mother bought a fiberglass pole for $40 a year later. It was an extravagant expense. I set the county record at 10’10” the next year. It stood for 30 years. Brian was my model.
Brian Sternberg set the world record in 1963 at 16’5”, in Modesto California on June 7, 1963, on my 13th birthday, the day I turned a teenager. It was the greatest day of my life. Five weeks later I would read the terrible news. Five years later I stood beside the bed of Brian Sternberg in his family home on Queen Anne Hill. I was a college freshman and a member of a college wrestling team. Our coach, Frank Furtado and later trainer for 30 years for the Seattle Super Sonics NBA basketball team, took us to meet Brian. It was a thrilling but sad day. Brian was an inspiring person laying in bed and barely able to move his head. His father showed us Brian’s gold medal from the Olympics sent to him by the Russian pole vaulter who felt that Brian would have won the Olympic event in 1964 if Brian had competed. There was also a letter from President Kennedy on the wall.
“It greatly disappointed me that you could not join your teammates on the United States Track Team this summer, but it is heartening to know that you are making progress in your recovery,” President Kennedy wrote in a note dated one month after Sternberg was paralyzed and three months before the nation’s leader was assassinated in Dallas.
His mother Helen gave us coffee and cookies. I remember the view of Mount Rainier from their home and the campus of the University of Washington. I wrestled the next day in Hec Edmonson Pavillion and thought about the fact that I was wrestling on the floor of the sports complex where Brain’s trampoline sat and changed his life.
Brian wasan inspiration, not only because he was considered the greatest world athelete in 1963 by many sports organizations, but because he would not allow this injury to defeat him. In 1996 he received a life changing operation in Germany. Sternberg traveled to Bad Pyrmont, Germany, to undergo an omentum transposition, a controversial surgery pioneered by an American based physician named Dr. Harry Goldsmith. The procedure, which Goldsmith performed, involved excising scar tissue from Sternberg’s injured area, then removing a large portion of the omentum from its attachment at the lower edge of the stomach, lengthening it and placing it on the injured part of the spinal cord. According to Goldsmith, this increases blood flow and neurochemical delivery from the omentum to the spinal cord. His mother said it has improved his life by 80%.
Brian has traveled the world speaking and inspiring people. He was a big part of my youth and to this day has inspired me to overcome every obstacle, transcend every perceived weakness, and never to be defeated by doubt or difficulty.
Brain was also a person of faith. I believe that more than anything else this has impacted my entire life. The power of faith can drive us to be better, climb higher, and strive longer.