LEAPS & BOUNDS
Santa Barbara’s Easter Relays, once a high stage on the international track and field scene, still knows how to fill an arena.
SBCC’s 10,000-seat La Playa Stadium was teeming all day Saturday with athletes and fans from 45 high schools for the 81st annual event.
“Easter Relays is definitely one of the meets I get excited about, especially being in my hometown – and just a couple of meters away from the ocean,” said Beau Allen, a San Marcos High senior who won the boys high jump with a leap of 6-feet, 8 inches. “Everybody loves competing here.”
John Uelses was so excited in 1962 that he soared through La Playa’s marine air to become the first pole vaulter to ever clear 16-feet, going a quarter-inch over that mark.
The Marine Corps corporal had actually broken the 16-foot barrier earlier that year during indoor meets in both New York and Boston, but only outdoor marks were recognized as world records in those days.
“That pole vault record lasted only six weeks,” said Des O’Neill, this year’s Easter Relays Honorary Referee and a meet official since 1965.
“Six weeks later, another Marine by the name of Dave Tork broke it. They were two of the first to master the fiber-glass pole.”
Mr. Uelses eventually earned an officer’s commission and flew fighter jets in Vietnam. He returned to La Playa Stadium 50 years after his milestone achievement to serve as the Honorary Referee of the 2012 Easter Relays.
He noted at the time that John Glenn’s historic space flight aboard Friendship 7 had come only 18 days after the first of his 16-foot vaults at Madison Square Garden.
“He was the second Marine astronaut to go into space,” Mr. Uelses said. “I was the first.”
His pole vault wasn’t the first world record broken at the Easter Relays. Dallas Long set the first of his seven shot put records at the 1959 meet.
Jim Harvey remembers the thrill of competing in the same, sunny, La Playa Stadium with world-class athletes when he was just a sophomore at Tulare Union High in 1955.
“From January to April, it was so foggy in the (San Joaquin) Valley that you never saw the sun,” Mr. Harvey said. “We came here and thought, ?Wow! This is wonderful! Two days later, we all had third-degree sunburns.
“We had a really good track team, and we came over here and got our butts kicked by all the big schools from L.A. ? We got burned by the sun AND by the big schools.”
Mr. Harvey returned to Santa Barbara in 1965 to become a teacher and coach at Washington Elementary School. One of his first athletes there was Ben Hallock, a track and football coach for Carpinteria and Santa Barbara High who was honored by the Easter Relays on Saturday for his long service.
Mr. Hallock, who ran track at Santa Barbara High, spoke of watching “Bob Seagren attempting a world record in the pole vault while competing for USC in the same meet.”
One of Mr. Harvey’s biggest thrills was seeing Tommie Smith and John Carlos run a relay for San Jose State shortly before they won gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics.
“Tommie Smith ran a sub-20 anchor of a 4×800 here,” Mr. Harvey said, pointing toward one of the turns in the La Playa Stadium oval. “I watched him come off from over there. He ran a 19.7.”
Mr. Smith and Mr. Carlos would become infamous for staging a protest on the medal stand at Mexico City. They took off their shoes to protest poverty, donned beads and a scarf to protest lynchings, and then lowered their heads and raised their fists in a black power salute during the national anthem.
They were soon sent home by Olympic officials and banned from the U.S. national team.
They weren’t the only Easter Relays competitors to become controversial figures.
“I saw O.J. Simpson’s USC relay team run here two years after I returned to Santa Barbara,” Mr. Harvey said, referring to a 440-yard squad that would set a world record later that year at the 1967 NCAA Championships.
“It was Earl McCullouch handing off to O.J., and then Fred Kuller, and it was anchored by Lennox Miller.”
The Easter Relays was started by then-Santa Barbara High coach Clarence Schuette a year after the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles had ignited the popularity of track and field throughout Southern California.
“There were a couple of years missed during the Second World War, but it has continued since then,” said Mr. O’Neill, a former track and cross country star at Cal.
The Easter Relays has played host to an estimated 50 Olympic medal winners. The first was famed American sprinter Frank Wykoff, who earned his first medal at the 1928 Games.
Bob Richards, who won pole-vaulting gold at both the 1952 and 1956 Olympics, and Rafer Johnson, the 1960 Olympic decathlon, are also Easter Relays alumni.
One of the last Olympic stars to get their start at La Playa Stadium was sprinter Marion Jones.
She won the girls 100 meters at three different Easter Relays- and it probably would have been a fourth had she not pulled a hamstring muscle before the 1993 meet.
Seven years later, she became the first woman to win five Olympic medals in track-and-field – but she returned them after admitting in 2007 that she had used banned substances.
“It was too bad, because a lot of the girls she competed against were also doped,” Mr. O’Neill observed, “but she got caught.”
Much has changed for the Easter Relays since those heady days. The elite independent athletes stopped coming when they were allowed to receive big paydays at other meets. The top collegiate teams, meanwhile, began attending meets at other venues that had installed artificial, all-weather track surfaces.
“They didn’t come here any more because we still had a dirt track,” Mr. Harvey said. “It wasn’t until 1988 that we got this one in.
“They were worried that it would bubble because of the seawater, but it only happened a couple of times in a couple of places.”
The several thousand high school athletes, however, were another matter on Saturday, bubbling over with enthusiasm during another full day at La Playa.