Cornelius "Dutch" Warmerdam (born 1915) dominated the sport of pole vaulting in the early 1940s.Using a bamboo pole, Warmerdam was the first person to vault over 15 feet, and he remained the only person able to do so until 1951. If World War II had not intervened, he would likely have been an Olympic champion.
Warmerdam, the third son of an immigrant from Holland, was called "Dutch" by his friends, and was known as a good-natured, modest boy and a good student. Because he skipped the third grade, he graduated from high school at age 16. He began vaulting when he was twelve years old, reaching 8 feet in that year, and increasing it to 9 feet by the time he was 13. By the time he was 16, his highest mark was 12'3, and his greatest vaulting achievement was a tie for third place in the 1932 California state high school meet.
With such an unspectacular performance, Warmerdam didn't receive any offers of scholarships from college coaches, and because college was too expensive, he stayed on his father's 40-acre peach and apricot orchard, and worked for a year and a half. During that time, he kept practicing his vault on a runway and pit he built in his father's fruit drying field.
His high school coach knew that he was still vaulting, and happened to mention Warmerdam's outdoor practice to a salesman who was passing by. Curious, the salesman drove past the farm and saw Warmerdam hurling himself over a high bar on the far side of a spinach field. He called Fresno State track coach Flint Hanner and told him he had just seen a young man vaulting well over 13 feet. Hanner went out to the farm to see Warmerdam for himself, and made a scholarship offer. In the spring of 1934, Warmerdam began his studies at Fresno, and vaulted 13-6.
In 1935, when he was 19, he vaulted 14-1 7/8, less the five inches away from the world record. He tied for first at the West Coast Relays with five men, including some of the best vaulters in the world. Warmerdam's amazing potential was somewhat untapped, however, because he wasn't interested in full-time training, preferring to lead a more well-rounded life than most other athletes. He took off from training in the summer, and in the fall, he only trained in order to compete in indoor meets. In addition, he played basketball, and was good enough to be a captain of the team.
An "Unbreakable" Barrier
In 1936, handicapped by a broken ankle, he beat his own personal best by only an inch. He took time off from competing and made a little money by picking cotton in the sweltering San Joaquin Valley. His father saw that he was discouraged about his lack of progress in his sport and said, according to Cordner Nelson in Track's Greatest Champions, "Don't quit; keep at it."
Warmerdam did keep at it. Like many vaulters of the time, he dreamed of vaulting over 15 feet, but that height seemed like an impossible barrier. At the time, Americans dominated the event, and by the late 1930s, vaulters Earle Meadows and Bill Sefton were close to reaching the goal. On May 29, 1937, they both vaulted 14-11, leading to hopes that they would make the 15-foot mark in the near future. They never did.
Many observers of the sport believed it was simply impossible for human beings to propel themselves that high. At the time, vaulters used fairly rigid bamboo poles, very different from the flexible carbon-and-fiberglass poles currently used, and landed in sand-and-sawdust pits instead of on the currently used air-and-plastic cushions. According to Cordner Nelson in Track's Greatest Champions, Warmerdam once described the process of vaulting: "No athlete has much left after sprinting 50 yards at top speed, yet I still have to figure on the body shock that comes when the pole strikes the ground. The pole vibrates, jars your whole system. It can tear loose the grip of your right hand. It can do something to destroy the physical coordination so necessary to finish the job after momentum ends at the crossbar."
"They told him it was physically and geometrically impossible" to go over 15 feet, Warmerdam's wife Nita told John Canzano in the Fresno Bee. Warmerdam met her at a community dance in 1937, and they would eventually marry in 1940. In 1938, the year Warmerdam graduated from Fresno State, he cleared 14-6. In 1939, in Boston, he made 14-6 1/8, setting a world indoor record. By 1940, he had a job teaching history and geometry in a small mountain town. He pole vaulted in his spare time, using a heavily taped pole that had been discarded by the Stanford University team. After a disastrous outdoor meet during which he could only clear 12-6, he began training again, practiced his sprint, lost ten pounds, and worked on his vault for several hours a day until he regained his old form.
Broke 15-Foot Barrier
He was now vaulting for the San Francisco Olympic Club. During his time with the club, he won or tied nine National Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) titles, seven of which were outdoors. Right from the beginning, he began closing in on the 15-foot barrier. He vaulted 14-4 at Stanford on April 6, 1940. On April 13, feeling good, he attended a small meet at Berkeley. His first few vaults, at 14-2, 14-5, and 14-8 1/2, seemed ridiculously easy. Exhilarated, he told the officials to set the bar at 15 inches.
On his first try he missed, but he realized the miss was very close and he could make it if he tried again. Nelson wrote, "It was a hard, struggling effort, but his body flew off the pole, and he was above the bar, wonderfully free." Thus, he set the world's first 15-foot record. On June 29, he beat his own world record, with 15-1 1/2. "It was big for me because it was in Fresno and my folks were there to see me," he said, according to Nelson.
Once Warmerdam had accomplished the 15 feet, he altered people's perceptions of previously "unbreakable" barriers-perhaps the true barriers were in people's minds, not in their bodies. According to Canzano, Stanford track coach Dink Templeton wrote, "I doubt that the achievements of any other man in the entire history of American athletics has ever had so great an effect, not only on American sports but on the minds of American people, as those of Warmerdam from the day in Berkeley when he first vaulted to the supposedly impossible 15 feet." He eventually reset the outdoor world record at 15-7 3/4; this new record would stand for 15 years. Bob Richards became the only other person to vault over 15 feet in 1951, but was never able to beat Warmerdam's record. Warmerdam also held the indoor world record at 15-8 1/2, which he set at a meet in Chicago in 1943. This record stood until 1957, when Californian Bob Gutowski finally broke it. In the course of his career, Warmerdam made 45 vaults over 15 feet. At the time, no one in the world had ever vaulted over 15 feet. According to Nelson, Bob Richards once said of Warmerdam, "Warmerdam was part sprinter, part shock-absorber, part acrobat, and part strong man. He wasn't human."
War Prevented Olympic Competition
Despite his immense talent as an athlete, Warmerdam never got to compete in any Olympics, because World War II intervened. As Ron Fimrite noted in Sports Illustrated, "Make no mistake, Warmerdam was a great champion; it's just that the war stole from him the sort of immortality that comes only in the Olympic Games for a track and field athlete. On the other hand, he lived through [the war], and for that he is eternally grateful."
The Olympic Games were canceled in 1940 and 1944 because most of the nations of the world were fighting one another. Warmerdam, like many other athletes, enlisted in the armed forces; he signed up for Navy duty early in 1943, and served as a lieutenant. Initially, he was posted as a physical-training officer, and his superiors urged him to continue pole-vaulting, because it would impress potential recruits. He did continue, and won two of his AAU championship titles. His wins did attract attention; in the Monmouth College Courier, Patrick DuMais quoted an Associated Press article from that time, which commented, "The indoor track season which has straggled along to packed houses with only a pair of stars, becomes a three-ring circus Saturday night in Madison Square Garden, with the return to competition of pole-vaulting Cornelius Warmerdam."
By 1944, however, the Navy needed him for more urgent pursuits, and he was assigned to be the fire-and damage-control officer on the escort carrier Matanikau. On the ship, of course, he could no longer vault. By the summer of 1945, the Matanikau was sent to help in the invasion of Japan, and Warmerdam, like the other men on board, grew nervous. On deck during their off-duty hours, they played basketball to try and keep their minds off the fact that their ship would soon be in the midst of battle. Ron Fimrite quoted Warmerdam, who said, "I saw us as a sitting duck." When they were almost to the Marshall Islands, they received word that President Truman had ordered that the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki be leveled with atomic bombs. The bombing ended the war, and to this day, Warmerdam believes his life was saved when his ship did not have to go into battle.
Became a Coach
After the war, pole vaulting changed. Bamboo was in short supply, and metal poles were lighter. They didn't last long, however, because fiberglass soon became the material of choice. Even after the war ended, however, Warmerdam's pole-vaulting days were over, and he officially retired from competition in 1946. He now had a wife and family to support, so in 1947, he took a coaching job at Fresno, his old school. According to Olympic rules at the time, athletes could not participate in the Games if they made money from their sport, so he was disqualified from all future Olympics because he was a coach. This is unfortunate, because when the 1948 Olympics took place, he was still the best pole vaulter in the world, even though he had taken time off during the war. While he was coaching the Fresno team, Warmerdam "fooled around" with the pole, and easily vaulted higher than any of the Olympic team vaulters.
Eventually he did compete again. In 1975, he won the national decathlon championships for athletes aged 60 and over. Surprisingly, the pole vault was his worst event. He told Fimrite in Sports Illustrated, "I'd been doing 12 ft. 6 in. in practice, but couldn't do any better than 11 ft. 4 in. in the meet. I was using a fiberglass pole."
In December of 2000, Warmerdam accepted USA Track and Field's award for American Pole Vaulter of the Century, in Reno, Nevada. In Track's Greatest Champions, Cordner Nelson summed up his career by writing, "In the entire history of track and field, no athlete's superiority has been so unquestioned as Warmerdam's." Nelson also quoted 1904 Olympic sprinter Nat Cartmell, who said "Warmerdam is the only all-time, indisputable, supreme champion the athletic world has ever known." Warmerdam, who is a professor emeritus of physical education at California State University, Fresno, is in his mid-eighties and still active. He jogs and plays golf with friends a few times each week.
Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, edited by David L. Porter, Greenwood Press, 1988.
Nelson, Cordner, Track's Greatest Champions, Tafnews Press, 1986.
Fresno Bee, January 23, 2000.
Monmouth Courier, September 22, 2000.
Sports Illustrated, Fall, 1991, Vol. 75(18).
Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/seo/c/cornelius-warmerdam/ (December 28, 2000).