Sternberg, Brian (1943-2013)

  • By Nick Rousso
  • Posted 5/21/2022
  • Essay 22474
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For a brief, glorious moment in the summer of 1963, Seattle native Brian Sternberg was the world's greatest pole vaulter. A 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Washington, he set three outdoor world records in a span of seven weeks, culminating with a leap of 16 feet, 8 inches at Compton, California, on June 7. But on July 2 in Seattle, while working out on a trampoline in preparation for a track meet in Russia, Sternberg lost his bearings in midair and crashed into the trampoline head-first, dislocating cervical vertebrae. Rendered a quadriplegic, he spent the final 49 years of his life confined to a wheelchair, distinguishing himself as a beacon of quiet determination, faith, perseverance, and courage. 

Like Father, Like Son

Born in Seattle on June 21, 1943, to Helen and Harold Sternberg, Brian Sternberg spent his youth in the suburbs south of the city. Sports were central to his life; while he claimed to be "an undesirable character" on the basketball court, where he was all knees and elbows, he was a superb gymnast and a fine baseball player ("Sternberg Aiming at State Record"). His father Harold was a Seattle building contractor and a former pole vaulter at Seattle Pacific College (now University), and when Brian was in the eighth grade, Harold introduced his son to vaulting. With a pole made out of cedar and a "crossbar" fashioned with string tied between two timbers, Brian made his first tentative jumps in the backyard of his family's Normandy Park home. Lanky and strong, he was a natural. Soon he was clearing eight feet routinely. Receiving little coaching other than tips from his father, Brian finished up at Sylvester Junior High with a personal best of 10 feet. "I doubt if I can take any credit for teaching Brian anything," Harold Sternberg would say. "I broke the cedar pole, trying to show him how to do it."

The Sternbergs then moved to Shoreline, where Sternberg improved to 11 feet, 9 inches during his sophomore year at Shoreline High School. He inched up to 12 feet, 6 inches during his junior year. He then starting working with John Cramer, a former Mount Vernon High School star who had set the state pole-vault record with a jump of 14 feet, 1 1/2 inches in 1959.

Cramer, having moved on to the University of Washington (UW), took a liking to Sternberg, and with Cramer's guidance and coaching, Sternberg began to soar. In the first meet of the 1961 season, he cleared 13 feet, followed by a narrow miss at 13-4 when he brushed the bar on his descent. A few weeks later he set an apparent Seattle Metro League record when he cleared 13-8 1/4, but the mark wasn't recognized because too much tape had been used on the standard to prevent the crossbar from falling off in high winds. In early May he cleared 14 feet, 3 1/4 inches, joining Cramer as the only Washington athletes to surpass 14 feet. The media began to take notice. On May 12, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Royal Brougham wrote, "prep pole vault sensation Brian Sternberg has had pretty sound teaching – Husky star John Cramer has been working with the Shoreline boy" ("The Morning After," May 12, 1961). That same day Sternberg captured the Metro League championship with a vault of 13-6. "I'd probably still be jumping 12 feet if it hadn't been for Cramer," said the protégé ("Sternberg Aiming at State Record").  

Meanwhile, perhaps emboldened by his son's success, Harold Sternberg agreed to give vaulting another try. "When Brian first started clearing [14] feet regularly, some of my friends in the Kiwanis Club started ragging me," Harold recalled. "I made them a little bet that I could still get off the ground on a pole" ("The Top of the Pole"). So on May 12, 1961, the day his son captured the Metro League title, the senior Sternberg, still trim at 46, borrowed a pole and went to Lower Woodland Park with a newspaper photographer in tow. "They agreed to pay me $1 for every inch I could clear over 8 feet. It wasn't easy, but I got over 10 feet and collected $24. I gave the money away to charity, so I guess I'm still an amateur" ("The Top of the Pole"). In fact, Harold cleared 10 feet on his first try. 

Sternberg's high school career ended unceremoniously when he finished second at the state championships behind two-time champion Dennis Peacocke of West Seattle. Sternberg cleared 13-7 twice, only to have his pole strike the crossbar and send it tumbling to the ground. When Peacocke cleared 13-7, Sternberg had to settle for second place at 13-4. That same day, Cramer vaulted 15-1 at the Far West Invitational in Corvallis, Oregon. Soon thereafter, against his parents' wishes that he attend Seattle Pacific, Sternberg decided to join his mentor at the University of Washington.

After enrolling at the UW in the fall of 1961, Sternberg settled into routines that sustained him for the next two years. He trained and competed with the gymnastics team during the winter and with the track team year-round. He dove into his studies, pursuing a major in physics, and loaded up on math and science courses with plans to become a high school science teacher. He met Nancy McCracken, a bubbly Seattle Pacific student and cheerleader, during a fireside get-together at the First Free Methodist Church, and soon they were going steady. 

The Fiberglass Revolution

Pole vaulting has existed in some form for centuries. According to Vaulting magazine, "pole jumping competitions were known to the ancient Greeks, Cretans, and Celts, and poles were used in warfare sieges to get over obstacles such as enemy walls or used to vault onto animals such as bulls and horses. Poles also were employed as a practical means of passing over natural obstacles" in marshy places such as provinces in the Netherlands ("Evolution of the Pole Vault"). Modern competitions began in Germany in the 1850s, and the pole vault has been an Olympic event for men since 1896, and for women since 2000.

In the sport's formative years, poles were made with hardwoods, usually ash or hickory. These gave way in about 1890 to poles made of bamboo, lighter and more pliable than hardwoods. These were followed after World War II by aluminum poles, also lightweight and with the added advantage of durability. Metal poles remained the competitive standard until the late 1950s, when a weapons engineer in the United States developed poles made of fiberglass. The timing could not have been better for Sternberg, who was just reaching his physical peak as the 1962 outdoor track season began.

Sternberg was 6 feet, 3 inches tall, muscular, and freakishly strong. UW teammate Phil Shinnick recalled that Sternberg "was in fantastic shape, with huge deltoids and biceps. He was just ripped" ("Cruel Worlds"). Sports Illustrated made note of his "bulbous shoulders and arm muscles and thick, powerful calves beneath even thicker thighs" ("One Brief Shining Moment …"). Later, Sternberg would do vertical pushups – pushing himself up and down from a handstand – near the vaulting runway to intimidate opponents. "Psychologically, they were done," friend Bill Knudsen recalled ("Former Huskies Record Holder …"). Even so, Sternberg sputtered during the winter of his freshman year, unable to clear over 13-6 indoors. Then came the moment that changed his vaulting life: In February 1962 he was given a fiberglass pole to experiment with, "and after a half-dozen tries he hit 14 feet repeatedly" ("The Morning After," February 8, 1962). On April 7 he cleared 14-9 in a meet at Husky Stadium. Two weeks later he catapulted over 15 feet at West Seattle Stadium. In August he set a Canadian record when he soared 15 feet, 8 inches in Vancouver, British Columbia – all with a fiberglass pole.

While some vaulters, including Cramer, viewed fiberglass poles with disdain, Sternberg was an eager adherent. When Japanese vaulter Masashi Otsubo recalled trying fiberglass for the first time, he said: "At times I didn't know whether I was going upward, forward or sideward." Sternberg described the sensation as feeling "like you're holding onto the upper end of something that just broke off in the middle" ("The Fastest Shot"). Adjusting to fiberglass meant learning new techniques with his hands, feet, and launch position, all of which he accomplished easily. In one of his typically modest self-appraisals, Sternberg would claim that "any success I have had is because I was among the first to learn to make full use of the fiberglass pole. A lot of younger fellows are mastering the technique and will come along and pass me" ("Brian, a Man of Modesty").  

By 1962 the advent of fiberglass had upset the status quo and sent vaulters ever higher. American John Uelses became the first person to clear 16 feet. Using metal poles, no one had ever vaulted higher than 15 feet, 9 1/4 inches. A national magazine conducted research to determine if fiberglass poles provided an unfair advantage and determined they did not. What it did conclude was that the most efficient poles were made of fiberglass or bamboo, with steel and aluminum a distant third and fourth. As the 1963 outdoor season dawned, Sternberg had suddenly become the prototypical world-class pole vaulter, the one everyone else would be chasing for world records. 

On Top of the World

For Sternberg, the spring and early summer of 1963 were a whirlwind of travel, competition, and athletic brilliance. He won the NCAA championship in Albuquerque, New Mexico, clearing 16 feet, 4 1/4 inches, and then went to the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, where in front of a crowd of 37,432 on April 27 he set the first of his three world records. Among the media members in attendance was Les Keiter, a Seattle native and former baseball player at the UW. Keiter had gained a measure of fame as a sports broadcaster in New York, and now he was calling the Penn Relays for a national television audience. "I talked with Brian on the field before he competed," Keiter recalled. "Being from Seattle myself I had a special interest in him. But I said to myself, 'This shy, 19-year-old kid isn't mature enough to break a record. He'll never make it.' The boy certainly fooled me. I've described championship fights, football games and just about every sports event. But I don't think I've ever got a bigger thrill than when that young fellow cleared the bar at 16-5 and I was able to tell my TV viewers that it was a world record" ("Sternberg Thrilled 'Em").

On May 25, Sternberg soared 16-7 at the California Relays in Modesto, a momentous occasion for Sternberg and teammate Phil Shinnick, who set a new world record in the long jump. On June 7, Sternberg cleared 16-8 at the Compton Relays near Los Angeles. Yet even after reaching another record height, Sternberg wasn't satisfied: "If I can go to 16-8 and still do everything wrong, there's bound to be someone who's going to hit 17" ("Brian, a Man of Modesty"). Two weeks later Sternberg prevailed at the AAU Track and Field Championships in St. Louis, narrowly missing on an attempt to clear 16-9. "At that point, Sternberg became the favorite over American rivals John Pennel and Fred Hansen to not only win the gold medal at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, but to become the first vaulter to clear 17 feet" ("Huskies Vault Legend ...").

Sternberg returned to Seattle to much fanfare. In an interview he told reporters that he never feared gymnastics and that pole vaulting was much more dangerous. "He even performed comedy routines on the trampoline, taking pratfalls to amuse fans" ("Brian Sternberg Soared …"). Time magazine wrote that Sternberg was just as much a gymnast as a trackman; he was rated one of the 10 best trampoline athletes in the country. He was adept at a difficult maneuver known as a "fliffis" – a double backward somersault with a twist. On the evening of July 1, less than two weeks before he was scheduled to depart for Russia, Sternberg took part in a gymnastics exhibition at Clover Park High School in Tacoma. He demonstrated the fliffis, much to the delight of a crowd that included 12-year-old Joyce Tanac, a future U.S. Gymnastics Hall of Famer. The next night, while listening to a ballgame, Tanac heard on the radio the terrible news that Sternberg had been badly injured in a fall at the University of Washington. 

The Accident

Sternberg arrived at Edmundson Pavilion at about 8 p.m. on July 2 for a routine workout in preparation for the meet in Russia. He said he was just "goofing around" when things went haywire. Working out on a trampoline, he took a couple of warmup bounces and then bounded some 15 feet into the air, did a double somersault with a twist – the move he had executed thousands of times before, including once on a lark off the Montlake Bridge – but inexplicably lost his bearings in midair and hurtled head-first into his landing. He knew instantly that something was terribly amiss. "My first thought was that I was going to miss the chance to go to Russia," he recalled. "Then I couldn't really feel anything, so I started yelling, 'I'm paralyzed! I'm paralyzed!" ("One Brief Shining Moment …").

The impact dislocated two cervical vertebrae and left Sternberg paralyzed from the neck down. "I'm still not really sure what happened," he recalled decades later. "I remember seeing my arms and legs sort of bouncing in front of my body and not being able to do anything about it" ("One Brief Shining Moment …"). In 1977, he admitted to making a critical mistake: "I had six stunts, all starting the same way. My ability to know – absolutely know – what stunt I was going to perform was not ingrained solidly enough and I committed the one, very cardinal error. I changed my mind in the middle of my stunt" ("Whatever Happened ..."). 

Sternberg had been working out with one other athlete at Edmundson Pavilion. "Dr. Eric Hughes of the UW athletic staff said Sternberg and Bob Hall, a UW junior and another gym star, were alone ... Somehow, Sternberg 'got lost' – failed to keep his mid-air momentum – and fell on his neck and shoulder. He instantly knew he was seriously hurt and told Hall not to move him. A neurosurgeon was summoned and supervised the transfer of Sternberg to the hospital" ("Vault Champ Brian Sternberg Suffers ...").

Sternberg was conscious throughout the ordeal but in critical condition. An X-ray revealed dislocations of the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae, and there were indications of damage to his spinal cord. Less than four hours after the incident he was placed in traction while doctors contemplated surgery. Meeting with the media in the wee hours of the morning, doctors declined to comment on the extent of Sternberg's paralysis, but Sternberg had sensed the extent of his injuries from the outset and quickly realized that his athletic career might be over. "You change your values fast," he told a friend the following day. "There must be a reason for all this … I hope I can take it" ("Brian, a Man of Modesty").

Clinging to Hope

In the first few months following the accident, Sternberg remained hopeful that his paralysis might be temporary. By January 1964 he was spending five hours a day in University Hospital's physical and occupational therapy section, and by February he was able to leave the hospital on weekends to stay with his parents, who had moved into a new home in Seattle's Queen Anne neighborhood, just up the hill from Seattle Pacific. Meanwhile, Greater Seattle Inc. pledged to donate the profits from a National Football League exhibition game at Husky Stadium to help with his medical bills. The event in August 1963 was heavily promoted, with a star-studded track meet adding to the spectacle, but a meager crowd showed up. Lamented Royal Brougham in the P-I:

"The brutal facts – Saturday's benefit game was an artistic success but a financial disaster ... Those who came, 13,500 fans, saw a spectacular forward passing duel between the Chiefs and the Raiders. They saw the fastest mile ever run in Seattle between the nation's finest runners, Jim Grelle winning in 4:04.4. They witnessed a new pole vault record for the stadium by John Pennel, 16-6, not to forget the impressive halftime ceremony, with Bob Mathias, the competing athletes, Sternberg's pastor and no less a well-wisher than President Kennedy, through written message, breathing their hopes and prayers for the Seattle boy's recovery. Only the fact that the young man fighting for his life was given a great moral and spiritual lift by the occasion lessened the shock of the complete failure of the attempt to raise money for Brian Sternberg" ("Where Are All the Fans?").

Two days before his first Christmas as a quadriplegic, UW students surprised Brian with Christmas "card" – 61 sheets of paper fastened together accordion-style. On it were more than 2,000 signatures and personal messages. In all, he received more than 5,000 letters in the months following the accident, including notes of encouragement from President John F. Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline Kennedy, and brother Robert Kennedy, keepsakes Sternberg had framed. "It greatly disappointed me that you could not join your teammates on the United States Track Team this summer," President Kennedy wrote in August, three months before he was assassinated in Dallas. "But it is heartening to know that you are making progress in your recovery" ("Cruel Worlds").

Sternberg remained hospitalized for nine months, leaving occasionally to be honored at track meets in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee. He traveled to Denver to visit McCracken, and he and his father journeyed to Finland. But Sternberg soon found himself isolated as fans and well-wishers moved on. "People started to get on with their lives," he said ("One Brief Shining Moment …"). His UW insurance ran out after six months, though he had gained control of some shoulder and arm muscles; a newspaper photo showed him making tentative strokes on a typewriter while sitting at a hospital window. But whatever progress Sternberg made was minimal and mostly illusory. He experienced immense pain, withering exhaustion, and unfathomable psychic trauma. He comforted himself with his faith and good humor. "Before this thing happened, I don't think you could have said that I was a fervent churchman," he told a P-I reporter. "Now, you might say that my values have changed a great deal. I can see the importance of this sort of thing and realize there's a reason for it" ("Bedside Report"). 

Doctors warned Helen and Harold that their son might not survive for more than five years. If he did survive, they cautioned, the difficulties of taking care of him would be too much to cope with over a long period. The doctors recommended that Brian be institutionalized. "They wanted us to place Brian in a rehabilitation center or a home. To us, that seemed inhumane," Helen said. "At 19, at a time when all the prospects were going Brian's way and then practically everything was taken away, he needed his family" ("Brian Sternberg Has One Goal ..."). So in March 1964, Brian Sternberg went home. 

The Long Game

Subsequent attempts to raise money were more successful than the football game. Thanks to a trust fund set up as the Brian Sternberg Foundation and a number of fundraisers, he was able to employ a full-time nurse at the family home. He and McCracken discussed marriage, and she moved into the Sternbergs' home for a short while, but eventually they decided to part ways. "I had to break that up," Sternberg said. "I had sworn I would walk from the hospital. Well, I rolled out in a wheelchair. Then I felt that losing Nancy would mark the end. I would abandon hope. But there is no way to measure the help she gave me. I was dazed for awhile, but then the realization came that Nancy had convinced me nothing must turn me away from God" ("Whatever Happened ..."). 

In October 1964, Sternberg began daily treatments with the experimental drug dimethyl sulfoxiod (DMSO), a colorless liquid derived from lignin, the material that holds wood fibers together in trees. Previously, DMSO had been used as an industrial solvent, but now it was being touted for topical use on muscular and skeletal injuries, inflammation, and arthritis. Sternberg began to notice tingling sensations in his toes and fingers, and while his paralysis remained, he would continue to use DMSO almost daily to prevent or heal bed sores. 

Sternberg began spending much of his free time speaking to youth groups about his life. He came to view his paralysis as "a matter of faith" ("Whatever Happened ..."). But that faith was tested yet again in 1976 when he was stricken with pneumonia and doctors performed a tracheotomy to save his life. He spent long weeks back at University Hospital and his weight plummeted to 120 pounds. Again he rallied, and by 1978 he was traveling to Idaho four days a month to work with a naturopath. That same year he was gifted a 1938 Plymouth and went for daily rides around Seattle with his father, his friends, or his orderly. 

In the 1990s Sternberg became aware of a Nevada doctor, Harry Goldsmith, who was touting an experimental surgery to help alleviate the effects of paralysis. Goldsmith's omental-transposition procedure was controversial and not yet approved in the U.S., so Goldsmith arranged to operate on Sternberg in Germany. In 1995 Sternberg traveled to a clinic near Hanover, where Goldsmith removed scar tissue from his spinal cord, then removed lining from the lower reaches of his stomach and wrapped it around the injured area, "forming a natural adhesive in hope this would stimulate circulation" ("Cruel Worlds"). The surgery allowed Sternberg to "breathe deeper, speak louder, remain upright for longer periods, improve muscle definition, and generally feel better. 'There was extreme irritation on his spinal column," his mother said. 'His pain has gone from a 10 to a 2'" ("Cruel Worlds"). The procedure gave him movement in his right arm and increased motor control. "I'm much stronger, and I can speak better, too," said Sternberg, then 53 years old ("Brian Sternberg Soared …"). "He has never given up an ounce," Helen Sternberg said after Brian returned from Germany. "In his mind, he is still an athlete" ("Brian Sternberg Soared ...").

In 1998, Sports Illustrated writer L. Jon Wertheim came to Seattle to interview Sternberg. Wertheim found a thoughtful, engaging, courageous survivor:

"Looking at Sternberg today, you might find it hard to believe that more than 35 years have passed since his career-ending injury. He is strikingly handsome, impeccably groomed, the possessor of a disarming smile and a razor-sharp wit. In his bedroom ... he wakes up to a view of the Washington campus. 'People ask if I'm mad at the world or mad at God, but being mad doesn't do me any good,' he says. 'Sometimes I feel I was cheated a bit, but what can I do about it?'

"Sternberg wants no pity, but when pressed, he admits that his convalescence, which has spanned eight presidential administrations, has often been excruciating. Tethered to a high-tech wheelchair, he requires upward of two hours to get showered and dressed in the morning. He suffers from short-term memory loss as a result of a near deadly allergic reaction to medication back in 1976. Though he is a quadriplegic, he can move his shoulders, but his limbs ache. Until recently his blood and oxygen circulation were so poor that he would pass out from the slightest exertion. 'It hasn't been easy,' he says. 'Just as with pole vaulting, I still set goals. When something like this happens, you just have to cope as best you can'" ("One Brief Shining Moment ...").

Sternberg solved challenges with the same kind of analytical thinking that let him excel in math and physics. Using a chopstick, he fashioned a device that let him depress a computer mouse with his mouth and enabled him to draw and write, however slowly. He kept the remote control to his television and VCR close at hand and spent hours "trolling the airways as an amateur ham radio operator. Beyond the gadgets and electronic amenities, Sternberg's room is a shrine to flight. Posters of jets, fighter planes and eagles adorn the wall and ceiling" ("One Brief Shining Moment ...").

In 1992 Sternberg found love again, smitten by his new caretaker, Catherine Murray. She too had attended Shoreline High School, but didn't know Brian until she came to work for the Sternbergs. "We fell in love the day we met," Brian wrote in his own obituary ("Brian Sternberg, 1943-2013"). He and Catherine married shortly before his death. 

Brian Sternberg died on May 23, 2013, a month short of his 70th birthday. That he lived that long was a surprise to many. He was hospitalized for the final 15 months of his life as his heart and lungs began to fail. "I thought he was going to go last year," said Bill Knudsen, his old friend from Shoreline. "We almost lost him then" ("Huskies Vault Legend ..."). Helen Sternberg said goodbye to her only son. "It was a long struggle, but he was in good spirits and always glad to see people," she said. "He had many, many visitors. Oh, he had so many friends. He was very fortunate that way. He was a wonderful person. I was very proud of him" ("Former Huskies Record Holder ...").


Dan Raley, "Cruel Worlds," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 23, 2003, p. D-4; "'Happy Holiday, Brian' -- (Signed) 2,000 Students," Ibid., December 24, 1963, p. 7; "A Hard Road to Travel," Ibid., November 17, 1963, p. 26; Gene Esquivel, "Brian, a Man of Modesty," Ibid., July 3, 1963, p. 18; "Vault Champ Brian Sternberg Suffers a Critical Neck Injury," Ibid., July 3, 1963, p. 1; Royal Brougham, "Where Were All the Fans?," Ibid., August 18, 1963, p. 18; Royal Brougham, "The Morning After," Ibid., February 8, 1962, p. 14; Gene Esquivel, "Sternberg Aiming at State Record," Ibid., May 14, 1961, p. 26; Gene Esquivel, "Bedside Report: Sternberg Vaults the Depths of Despair," Ibid., July 14, 1963, p. 1; Charles Dunshire, "It May Have Been God's Will, Says Sternberg's Girl Friend," Ibid., July 14, 1963, p. 1; Don Tewkesbury, "Whatever Happened To ... Brian Sternberg?," Ibid., October 2, 1977, p. A-2; Royal Brougham, "Best of Show," Ibid., February 28, 1978, p. D-4; Jack Hewins, "Mite by Mite, Sternberg Fights for Full Recovery," Ibid., January 25, 1964, p. 1; Bud Withers, "Former Huskies Record Holder Brian Sternberg Has Died," The Seattle Times, June 5, 2013 (; Jack McLavey, "Sternberg Tops Vault Mark," Ibid., May 6, 1961, p. 7; Georg N. Meyers, "Tempest Over Glass," Ibid., February 28, 1962, p. 26; Georg N. Meyers, "The Fastest Shot," Ibid., February 23, 1962, p. 36; Georg N. Meyers, "The Sporting Thing," Ibid., February 23, 1962, p. 36; Georg N. Meyers, "The Top of the Pole," Ibid., June 30, 1963, p. 67; Stan Patty, "Experimental Drug Offers Hope," Ibid., June 29, 1965, p. 48; Steve Rudman, "Huskies Vault Legend Brian Sternberg," SportsPressNorthwest, May 31, 2013, SportsPressNW website accessed May 7, 2022 (; David Eskenazi, "Sternberg Coped With Hope," June 18, 2013, sportspressnew website accessed May 7, 2022 (; L. Jon Wertheim, "One Brief Shining Moment Until a Crippling Fall in '63, Brian Sternberg was the World's Best Pole Vaulter," Sports Illustrated, September 21, 1998, Sports Illustrated website accessed May 6, 2022 (; "Jump Up, Twist Around, Set Another Record," February 25, 1963, website accessed May 6, 2022 (; Jon Marmor, "Brian Sternberg Soared as a Pole Vaulter Until Fateful Accident," December 1, 1997, The University of Washington Magazine,  website accessed May 6, 2022 (; "Evolution of the Pole Vault," undated, Vaulter Magazine website accessed May 16, 2022 (

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