Brian Sternberg became the world record holder in the men’s pole vault in 1963. He set one of his records on 25th May that year in Modesto, California with a huge jump of 16 feet and 7 inches. Just a few weeks later he beat his own record with a jump of 16 feet 8 inches. Brian was voted the greatest athlete in North America that year and looked unbeatable for the gold medal in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics in 1964. But tragedy struck this incredible young athlete less than a month after his last record.
At six feet and three inches, Brian was covered in rippling muscle. Fellow athletes described him as having the look and poise of a great champion. He was well loved and won every competition he entered.
Brian also excelled at gymnastics. Knowing that a great pole vaulter must be something of an outstanding gymnast as well as a superb athlete, he continued to take gymnastics seriously and regularly trained on the trampoline.
The U.S. track and field team was preparing for a tour of Russia. Brian drove over to the training facilities at the University of Washington on 2nd July 1963 for a training session on the trampoline. He describes what happened next;
“If ever there is a frightening moment in trampolining, it is just as you leave the trampoline bed, on your way up. At that moment, even the most experienced gymnast sometimes gets a sensation of panic, for no good reason… It hit me as I took off. I got lost in midair and though I was going to land on my hands and feet, as I had done several times before when panic came. Instead I landed on my head.
I heard a crack in my neck, then everything was gone. My arms and legs were bounding in front of my eyes, but I couldn’t feel them moving. I was yelling, “I’m paralyzed” …I had practically no lung power. The paralysis was affecting my breathing. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t move… Real anguish hit me a couple of times while we waited for the doctor… I was thinking only about the future. I had not begun to think about the possibility of never walking again.” 1
Brian never did walk again. But despite the incredible difficulties he and his family had to face since that tragic accident, Brian’s story is actually a very positive one. He had a lot of visitors in the aftermath of the accident. One was a girl who had a different outlook. She had known Brain since they were at elementary school and she asked him about his faith. Brian says that in answer he lashed out, “I have none!” But she persevered, visiting him every day she would ask him why she had never seen him smile and challenged him about putting God first in his life. It was a huge challenge, but Brian had plenty of time to think. She stopped coming for several weeks, but when she returned Brian was smiling. He had decided to put God first and he wanted to tell people about his new faith.
At a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) conference five years after the accident, Brian shared his story with nearly a thousand people. The hall was darkened and a movie screen showed a six foot three inch muscled athlete breaking the world record. The room was filled with rapturous applause. Then the curtains were drawn back and a spotlight shone on an empty chair. Football player Wes Wilmer moved from the left of the stage to centre stage, carrying something in his arms. Amazingly, this huge young man had dedicated himself to being the arms and legs of Brian Sternberg! As he carried Brian, the former pole vaulter looked like a rag doll with arms and legs hanging limp head swaying from side to side. Wes propped him up with pillows to make sure he didn’t fall over and then put a microphone close to his mouth.
Brian began to tell an impressive story of his athletic achievements. Over his short time as an athlete he had accomplished more than the average athlete in a lifetime. However, it was when Brian got to the central point of his talk that a hush fell on his audience. He said,
“I never felt like a winner until I put God in the centre of my life.”
Brian shared the story of how he came to know Jesus Christ. He shared about the pain of a vibrant young athlete becoming a quadriplegic and then he closed his eyes and said a prayer from deep within his heart. Despite all that had happened, his career cut short, the horror of being trapped inside his own immovable body, Brian said that putting Christ first was the best thing that ever happened to him!
It’s half a century since the tragic accident that ended Brian’s career as a world class athlete. On his walls at home, he kept treasures from the past. There are dozens of letters and photographs from fellow athletes, plaques, awards, and a very special get well wish from President John F Kennedy just before he was assassinated. But Brian said the greatest treasure in his was the gift of forgiveness and life eternal that he received from God just a few months after the most devastating tragedy an athlete can suffer. Brian lost a lifetime of fame, wealth, and adulation, but he gained something far more precious.
Brian passed into eternity on 23rd May, 2013. Just one month short of seventy, and 50 years almost to the day after he set his first world pole vault record. He lived an unusually long life for a paraplegic. Medical staff attributed his longevity partly to his athletic training, but more to his positive attitude brought about by his deep faith in Jesus Christ.
1. Brian Sternberg with John Poppy, ‘My Search for Faith’, Look, March 1964 pp 79-80.
Feature photo 1: Pole Vault. Photo attribution; 1: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License,
photo 2: Brian Sternberg 3rd May 1963. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany, author unknown.