Meet Brad Walker, Seattle's most anonymous superstar. He's a pro, but not a Sonic, a Mariner or a Seahawk. Unlike any of them, he's ranked...
Meet Brad Walker, Seattle’s most anonymous superstar.
He’s a pro, but not a Sonic, a Mariner or a Seahawk. Unlike any of them, he’s ranked No. 1 in the world in his sport: pole vaulting.
He’s the favorite for Olympic gold in Beijing this summer. He has won two world championships, including last year’s title in Osaka, Japan.
Walker has vaulted just 6 inches shy of his sport’s Holy Grail, Sergei Bubka’s 15-year-old record of 20 feet, 2 ½ inches.
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He was a two-time NCAA champion before graduating from Washington, where he still trains at the Dempsey Indoor facility, splitting his time there with a Stockton, Calif., club.
Yet most residents of Mountlake Terrace, where Walker lives, and Seattle in general, don’t have a clue a possible medalist is in their midst.
“If people see him at a grocery store, he just looks like a guy in good shape,” said Blake Bidleman of Bellevue, Microsoft analyst and former UW teammate. “You hear about some guy in Triple A [baseball] who gets called up for two games and everybody knows his name. Here, you’ve got a guy who’s a gold-medal contender and nobody knows who it is.”
That’s the fate of most Olympians, famous only in four-year intervals. If that.
Consider that two U.S. pole vaulters, Tim Mack and Toby Stevenson, won Olympic gold and silver in 2004 and didn’t exactly become household names.
“That’s one of the things that’s a little bit tough,” Walker said, mystified that he got more recognition as a top college vaulter than the best in the world. “I have one of the highest jumps ever — no one knows that. That’s real frustrating.”
Walker doesn’t let it get him down. Instead, he keeps going up. Immersed in football at Horizon Junior High in Spokane, Walker first pole vaulted when track coach Reg Hulbert held tryouts.
“Quite frankly, he was pretty lousy at it,” said Walker’s father, Tom, a diver and trampoline competitor in high school who never figured the sport would catch on with his son. “He never had any interest in track and field before.”
But Walker got better. His 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame is a plus, as is his speed. Little-known fact: Pole-vaulters have to be good sprinters. Pat Licari, Walker’s coach at UW, estimates Walker’s 40-yard time is between 4.4 and 4.5 seconds. Pole vaulters also have to be precise — mistimed steps on an approach, or a pole plant that’s off could mean disaster in a sport where humans catapult themselves up and over a bar 19 feet high.
“He just works harder than anybody I’ve ever known,” Bidleman said.
Walker, 26, doesn’t like to lose at anything. Cards. Video games. Even workouts, where drills become contests. Who can throw the medicine ball farthest? How about a javelin, left-handed?
Still, Walker’s biggest strength is his mental game.
“It’s just absolutely amazing,” Licari said. “The bigger the meet, the greater the competition, the more he’s going to step up and do what he needs to do.”
Take the 2006 world indoor championships in Russia, where he won his first world title with a season-best vault of 19 ¼ feet on his third and final attempt, just days after being knocked out cold on a botched landing while warming up for preliminaries.
A year later, at the world outdoor championships in Osaka, Japan, Walker banished from his mind the pain of bulging back disks — an injury that still hampers him — and won the title. This winter, he took a silver medal at the world indoors despite near constant therapy for his back. He also has coped with an injured heel.
“What would sideline most people, he would just put it to the side and go for it,” said Jeff Wineinger, Walker’s friend since seventh grade.
If Seattle doesn’t know him, Osaka does. Walker returns there Saturday for the first time since the world title that made him a favorite for Olympic gold. For most, it’s just another meet on the international circuit. For Walker, it’ll be a boost after injuries kept him from jumping much this spring.
“It should be a great time,” he said. “I love Japan in general. Osaka’s a great city. The track will be very memorable for me. The Japanese people are warming, welcoming. There’s a pride and respect. I feel really comfortable there.”
Lagat may take shot
at 5,000-meter race
Bernard Lagat’s Olympic medal progression in the 1,500 meters shows promise for 2008. He won bronze in the 2000 Sydney Games, then silver in Athens. Does this mean he’ll finally strike gold in Beijing?
Alberto Salazar, famed marathoner turned coach, surprisingly says he thinks Lagat’s got a better shot at winning the Olympics’ 5,000-meter race — not his specialty.
Lagat, a Washington State graduate, stunned observers when he won both the 1,500 and 5,000 at last year’s world championships, the first man to accomplish the double at the worlds (Finland’s legendary Paavo Nurmi did it at the 1924 Olympics, and Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj at the 2004 Games).
It was the first time Lagat, who is from Kenya, competed for the United States after becoming a citizen.
Lagat said earlier this year he would concentrate on the 1,500 and wait until just before the Olympics to decide whether to add the 5,000.
But if Lagat were to train for just one event, Salazar would pick the longer one for his best shot at gold.
“As you get older, which everybody does — even him — [in] the 5K his speed is still superior,” Salazar said. “He may be a little slower than he was before at 1,500. But at 5K, he’s still the fastest guy as far as finishing.”
• Bellevue’s Tracy Nugai has qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in judo, set for June 13-14 in Las Vegas. Nugai, representing Budokan Judo, is ranked No. 2 in the nation at 52 kg (about 114 pounds). For two other locals, making the Olympic team is a little more complicated. They must first qualify their weight divisions for Beijing. That’s what Marti Malloy and Travis Stevens will be doing at the Pan American Championships and Olympic Zone Cup in Miami starting Thursday and ending Sunday. Malloy, from the NBA Whidbey Island Judo Club, will compete at 63 kg (about 139 pounds). Stevens, of Ippon and Emerald City Judo Club, will compete at 81 kg (about 179 pounds). Qualifying themselves will come later.
• Two-time Olympian from Crystal Mountain Scott Macartney, who suffered a concussion in a fall at Kitzbuhel, was one of six current and former athletes elected last week by their peers to serve on the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association board of directors. Macartney, a Dartmouth College graduate with a degree in economics, said he fully expects to return to the World Cup circuit next season, with the 2010 Vancouver Olympics a substantial carrot.
• Want to wish your favorite Olympian-to-be good luck before Beijing? Send an e-mail via a new Web site launched last week, www.amazingawaits.org, which also features video and information about the U.S. team, including bios of more than 80 athletes.
Meri-Jo Borzilleri: email@example.com