Founding Fathers Of America’s 6 Meter Club
Jeff Hartwig, Tim Mack Still Inspire, by David Hunter
January 12, 2014
Selected track events often have their own little fraternities – all founded upon athletic achievement beyond a certain superlative time, height, or distance. In the mile, it is – of course – the sub-4 minute club. For the 100 meters, it is the sub-10 second performers. In the 110 meter hurdles, the sub 13 second athletes. Field events have their special groups as well: 8 feet in the high jump; 70 feet in the shot put – you get the idea.
Even pole vaulters – perhaps the most courageous – some might say reckless – of all track & field athletes have a recognized performance level for only the very accomplished of its athletes. It is the 6 Meter Club.
It takes a very skilled and driven athlete to pole vault 19′ 8Â¼”. The vaulter has to have the speed of a sprinter, the strength of a power lifter, the nimbleness of a gymnast, and the fearlessness of a Formula One driver. Since 1985 – when the incomparable vault legend Sergei Bubka became the first to clear 6 meters – a total of only 18 athletes have gained entry into the exclusive 6 Meter Club.
Inclusion in the 6 Meter Club takes on even greater domestic meaning when it is appreciated that only 4 Americans – Jeff Hartwig, Tim Mack, Toby “Crash” Stevenson, and Brad Walker – have cleared the magical height of 6.00m.
Perhaps even more impressive than the 6 meter clearance itself are the years of dedication – to build speed, to develop mature strength, to learn and refine the many technical aspects of the jump mechanics – that even allow an athlete to vault in the 6 meter neighborhood.
Hartwig – the first American to gain entrance into the 6 Meter Fraternity – is a great example. His 14′ 6″ high school clearance was notable, but offered no indication of what he would later accomplish. During his college years at Arkansas State, Hartwig – under the careful tutelage of American vault legend Earl Bell – improved his PR to 17’8″, but “no heighted” at each of his 3 NCAA championship appearances.
After college, Hartwig – undaunted and encouraged by Bell – pressed on. Building speed, gaining strength, and refining the intricate vault mechanics, Hartwig chipped away – improving his PR by a couple of inches every year. “I wanted to jump 18 feet and I knew I could do it,” Hartwig explains. By 1992, the post-collegiate athlete had upped his personal best to 18’4″ and he cleared his first national competition bar in the Olympic Trials where he finished 13th . “At that stage in my career, I hadn’t even thought about jumping 19 feet – that was a whole other planet.”
Hartwig’s improvement continued and the bar rose higher. A ’96 Trails clearance of 5.79m / 19′ earned the Arkansas vaulter a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. After an 11th place finish in the Olympic final, Hartwig recalculated the vision of his vault future. “The American record was 19’7″ – still below 6 meters. At that level, an inch is a mile. I’m thinking at that point that the pathway to 6 meters will have a 19’2″ bar in there, 19’4″ bar in there, perhaps a couple of shots at an American record. All of that would have to happen before this mythical 6.00 meter height could be attacked.”
1997 consistency – Hartwig became the first American vaulter to clear 19′ ten times in a single season – set the table for 6.00m attempts the following year. The moment came at a 1998 European meet in Paris’ St. Denis Stadium. Gliding over the bar at 6.00m allowed Hartwig to achieve a dream and become just the 8th athlete to enter the 6 Meter Club. It was a journey that took 8 post-collegiate years of consistent focus and glacially-paced improvement. “My goals were always based upon what I believed to be a realistic aspiration,” reflects one of only 6 men who have cleared 6 meters both indoors and out.
Tim Mack’s pathway to the 6 Meter Club is different, but no less compelling. After a modest schoolboy beginning, a college transfer to Tennessee allowed Mack to be tutored by the revered Jim Bemiller who coached Mack to the 1995 NCAA vault title and his collegiate PR of 18’4″. Like Hartwig, Mack knew that much post-collegiate work remained if he wanted to compete against the world’s pole vault elite. “When I was clearing 18’8″, the highest I ever thought I could jump was 5.85 meters [19’2Â¼”],” confesses Mack. “I was thinking, ‘These other guys are so much bigger. If I keep thinking how good they are and how I am, it’s going to drive me nuts,'” he reveals. “I had to focus on positive stuff. So I figured I should better just forget about it [6 meters] and focus on getting a little faster, getting a little stronger, improving my pole drop, and all the little things that would help me jump higher.” The thinking man’s vaulter knew that the road to improvement was the development of flawless vault mechanics. “I had to work on the process. I had to put 6 meters out of my mind.” But with a wry smile, he adds, “But it was always there.”
Like Hartwig, Mack’s progression – while measured – was certain. By 2000 – 5 years after college – Mack was a 19 foot pole vaulter. Heading into the 2004 Olympic Trials, his PR was 19’4″. He started to view improvement in a different way. “Eventually, it didn’t come down to focusing on the magical 6 meters, it was the realization that to be jumping 6 meters I had to have a certain grip and be on a certain pole to jump that high,” explains Mack. And with a hint of pre-destination, Mack adds, “I didn’t know how high I could jump, but I knew if I would put everything into it, I would make an Olympic team and I would win gold.”
2004 was Tim Mack’s storybook year. At the Athens Games, Mack stood at the end of the runway in second place facing his final attempt at 5.95m / 19’6 Â¼”. He became the Olympic champion when he cleared and Toby Stephenson missed. Two weeks later, Mack captured the IAAF Grand Prix Final clearing 6.01m / 19’8Â¾” to eclipse Sergei Bubka’s GP finals record.
Over time, both Tim Mack and Jeff Hartwig have developed a much better perspective of the six meter clearance and what that achievement truly means for each of them. For Mack – it has underscored the importance of timing and performing when it counts. “Honestly, even to this day, it is hard for me to believe I am a 6 meter vaulter,” Mack exclaims. “My two highest marks – 5.95m and 6.01m – I cleared them once and never cleared them again.” For Hartwig – the former outdoor and current indoor American record holder who cleared the mythical six meter height – or better – 9 separate times, it is the developed appreciation of the enormity of the achievement. “What gives you the ability to do it [clear 6 meters] is to be focused and in the moment,” Hartwig reflects. “But I look back at it now, and I think “Whoa!”
The siren song of the 6 meter bar continues to call out to a new generation of emerging elite vaulters. 19 year old Shawn Barber – the Canadian national and U.S high school vault record holder – is one of a new pole vaulting breed that knows and respects the achievement – and the magic – of a 19’8Â¼” clearance. “I don’t think about it directly. But it is definitely in the subconscious,” explains Barber whose current personal best is 5.71m / 18’8Â¾”. “I am always thinking, ‘How can I improve myself. How can I get a little bit better to push me up to that
6 meter mark.” Barber – who was the 13th highest worldwide performer in 2013 – appreciates the mental aspect of scaling greater and greater heights. “I think 6 meters is more of a number game than anything. People see 6 meters and they think it is that big bar that only 18 athletes have cleared. It can be really intimidating.”
The young athlete – who vaulted higher than in high school than both Mack and Hartwig did leaving college – is still nearly a foot away from 6 meters. Like his elders, Barber prefers to bring an incremental approach to pole vaulting improvement. “I think any PR is a step in the right direction,” Barber offers candidly. “It is just as hard to get a PR at 18′ 6″ or 19″0′ as it is for kids getting PR’s at 11’6″ or 12′. If you start thinking about all the athletes who have tried and failed at those heights, you can kinda get down on yourself and it is really hard to break that barrier. But when you take that mental game out of it, it gets a lot easier to move further and further up that mountain.”
Shawn Barber – who enjoys both American and Canadian citizenship – has gotten to know Jeff Hartwig and Tim Mack over the past year. He gains inspiration by reflecting upon their lofty performances and by receiving solid practical counsel from two of the founding fathers of the American chapter of the 6 Meter Club. “They are really down to earth guys,” smiles Barber. “They really put jumping high bars in the right perspective – what you need to do, where you need to be at that point in your life, and how you need to train to get to those places.”
As a rule, retired track & field performers who are the most content are the ones who can look back with pride upon their years as world class athletes with the knowledge that they did their very best. Certainly that is the case with both Jeff Hartwig and Tim Mack – peerless performers in their day, both of whom achieved much as elite pole vaulters. But both Hartwig and Mack can also reflect with quiet pride upon one other cherished facet of their accomplished careers. To this day, their pioneer performances remain the lofty standard of preeminent pole vault achievement that continue to inspire an entire emerging generation of young vaulters.