U.S. wins gold, silver in pole vault

ATHENS, Greece -- In the pecking order of Olympic virtues, "higher" has always seemed less exciting than "faster" and "stronger." That is until "later" came along.

Long after Marion had left the building and more than three and a half hours after the track and field competition began Friday night, the American pole-vaulting duo of Tim Mack and Toby Stevenson lifted higher to new heights.

The only American gold medalist of the day, Mack set an Olympic record, clearing 19 feet, 6¼ inches in his final attempt, and Stevenson cleared 19-4¼ as the United States finished 1-2 in the event for the second straight Games.

Poor Giuseppe Gibilisco. Italy's 2003 World Champion thought he had a shot at the gold when he was the only vaulter to clear 19-2½ on his first attempt. But a leg injury that has hampered him since May prevented him clearing anything higher, and left him with the bronze medal and a front-row seat to history.

Both Mack and Stevenson had been sailing over the bar all night, clearing it with room to spare. Fellow American Derek Miles, who trains with Mack and Stevenson and finished seventh at 18-10¼, wasn't surprised.

"I could tell Tim Mack had it for about a month," he said. "He was taking really good shots at 6 (meters) in training.

"Toby has had it this whole year."

Both men cleared 19-4¼, Mack's personal best, on their first try.

Then came 19-6¼. Mack missed first.

After Stevenson completely botched the job -- the pole slid through his hands as he ran up on the landing mat -- he held both hands to his head as if they were guns, pulled the triggers and collapsed.

"I was mad because I missed a chance to fine tune where I was in my head," said Stevenson, who has worn a hockey helmet while competing since high school at his parents' request. A demonstrative competitor -- he played air guitar with his pole after clearing 19-2½ -- Stevenson says he's kept the helmet to protect his Stanford degree. It also comes in handy when he needs something to throw, which he did after missing 19-6¼ on his third and final attempt.

After clinching the gold with a height 1-inch higher than the Olympic record, there was only one thought running through Mack's head -- a chance at 6.

Six meters -- or 19 feet, 8¼ inches -- is the holy grail of pole vaulting. Only nine vaulters in history have cleared it, including Stevenson earlier this year. It was a strange sight to behold, just Mack and his routine. Sweatpants on, jacket on, visor on, stretch, visualize, visor off, jacket off, sweatpants off. Three times.

If you're going to do it, you might as well do it right.

Though he was able to raise himself over the bar, Mack was unable to clear it, alternately knocking it off with his shins and his knees on the way down.

By the time he finished, it was 11:41 p.m. -- almost an hour after the scheduled time for the event's medal ceremony, which was pushed back to Saturday. Starting blocks were already packed up and scoreboards wheeled away. It was well past midnight when the medalists finished celebrating and signing autographs and left the field.

Will the last pole vaulter to leave Olympic Stadium please turn out the lights?