Joey Crandall

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July 29, 2008
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Olympic vaulters get lift from Carson plant

GARDNERVILLE - It's been 21 years since Carson Valley residents Steve Chappell and Lane Maestretti, along with their friend Jim Wagnor, took a chance with their fledgling manufacturing company, UCS Spirit.

The trio had been working with AMF Pacer American in Carson City, developing the Pacer III vaulting pole used in the pole vault track and field events.

AMF was sold to a company in Illinois in 1986, which left the the three men at a crossroads.

"Their intention was to move the vaulting pole division to Illinois, and we decided that we could create a different pole," Chappell said. "We had faith that friends in the market and friends in the business would give us a chance.

"It took a little while. People were pretty cautious with us along the way. But we had a lot of luck and we're in a good spot today."

Indeed, UCS Spirit vaulting poles have carried the gold medalists in both the men's and women's events to victory during the past two Olympiads, not to mention three silver and one bronze along the way.

Chappell said his company is hoping to continue that streak through the upcoming Olympics in Beijing.

Top American medal hopefuls Jennifer Stuczynski, April Steiner Bennett and Brad Walker and Russian world record holder Yelena Isinbayeva will headline the list of athletes who will be competing with UCS poles in China.

"We hope we'll be well-represented," Chappell said. "It certainly doesn't hurt when an athlete does well with our poles. We have a number of people within striking distance of gold medals and world records."

Chappell estimated that between nine and 12 athletes, depending on how the trials process wraps up across the globe, will be using UCS poles in next month's Olympics.

He noted a growing rivalry between Stuczynski and defending gold medalist Isinbayeva that could be an early highlight in Beijing.

"They've been having some good competitions over these last few weeks," Chappell said. "Stuczyski is a very good prospect for a medal, and Isinayeva will certainly be in her way.

"It's a very good rivarly, something we haven't seen in the pole vault for a while. If things pan out and they both get into the Olympic finals, you could see the event get a lot of exposure.

"You always get your standard events, like the 100 meters, that are well-watched, but for pole vault to get any kind of play, there has to be a good rivalry going."

Chappell, who was a competitive vaulter through college in England, got a job from his father-in-law, George Moore, who had started the Pacer company.

The company picked up from the work of Herb Jenks, a research engineer who first developed fiberglass vaulting poles when he was working on a way to replace bamboo fishing poles with a composite fishing rod.

Jenks had brought his business to Carson City in 1965.

He worked on a variety of sporting goods, including skis and tennis raquets, and over time his company evolved to produce the Pacer pole.

"Herb is largely the reason we are here," Chappell said. "He brought his work up from Southern California. Carson City was a small town at the time, and they offered a lot of incentives to a business like his."

When Pacer sold, and Chappell, Wagner and Maestretti opened up UCS Spirit, they simply looked for ways to break in.

They started primarily providing poles for local high schools. The first UCS Spirit poles ever used in competition were by Carson High vaulters at the Yerington Relays in 1987.

The first break came later that spring in the form of Doug Fraley, who was vaulting for Fresno State University.

"He needed a pole for the national championships because one of his broke," Chappell said. "Lane flew to the competition, took the pole with him, and it just happened to match the right guy at the right time.

"Fraley went out and won the national championship on the new pole. That got a lot of attention.

"It was a great start, we were beginning to penetrate the market a little bit."

While Fraley's victory started to give the new company some credibility, the company got its big break at the world championships that summer.

Chappell and Maestretti met with world record holder Sergei Bubka at the championships to discuss their new product.

"He said when we were ready, we should send him some poles," Chappell said. "He started jumping with our poles in competition the next season and broke his world record very early in the season.

"For the rest of his career, he jumped on UCS poles and set another 12 world records. He still holds both the indoor and outdoor world records today."

Bubka's success was just one of many stories along the way that heightened UCS Spirit's popularity in the market.

Wagnor left the company after about six years to begin research work in windsurfing, but Chappell and Maestretti stuck around to continue to grow the company.

Now, 21 years since opening the doors, UCS Spirit produces 10,000 poles a year.

"The high school business is very strong for us," Chappell said. "We provide for all ages and abilities."

The Carson factory produces about 40 to 50 poles a day.

"A lot of it is simple hand construction," Chappell said. "We start with a roll of fiberglass and you roll it and cut it according to the length and stiffness the pole is going to be.

"The material is wrapped around a form 1/2 a long aluminum tube we call a taper. It could be as many as 10 or 11 wraps of fiberglass, could be as few as six. The stronger, longer poles have a bigger diameter and thus more wraps of glass."

Once the glass is rolled around the tube, it is trimmed and finished before being molded under heat and pressure.

"The whole cycle takes about 45 minutes," Chappell said. "Once a pole is molded and cooled, we can look at the flexibility with a simple flex test.

"If the pole is too soft, then we'll basically add glass and change the distribution to make a stronger pole."

After the initial test and re-mold, it gets tested in a simulation of a full vault.

If it passes there, cosmetic tape and labeling is applied and it is set in a shipping tube.

Shipping tubes up to 18-feet long provide its own set of challenges.

"The tubes are too long for UPS or FedEx," Chappell said. "Nobody in the freight business wants packages this long that can be so fragile. We mostly go with trucks.

"We've had some tragic stories over the years where a forklift runs over the package, and the pole gets crushed or the freight gets mishandled and jammed or wedged or something gets dropped on it.

"You can talk to any pole vaulter and they'll keep you entertained with stories about how their poles get lost, misplaced, forgotten, broken. It's much easier to be a long jumper than a pole vaulter."

Olympic Games

2004: Gold, Bronze

2000: Gold, Silver

IAAF World Championships

2007 Outdoor: Gold, Silver, Bronze

2006 Indoor: Gold

2006 Junior: Gold

2005 Outdoor: Gold, Silver, Bronze

2004 Indoor: Gold, Silver, Bronze

2003 Outdoor: Gold, Silver, Bronze

2003 Indoor: Gold, Silver, Bronze

2001 Outdoor: Gold, Silver, Bronze

2001 Indoor: Gold, Bronze

Current World Records

Outdoor: Sergey Bubka, 6.14m

Indoor: Sergey Bubka, 6.15m

Current NCAA Records

Outdoor: Lawrence Johnson, 5.98m

Indoor: Jacob Davis, 5.85m

Olympic Games

2004: Gold, Silver

2000: Gold, Silver

IAAF World Championships

2007 Outdoor: Gold, Silver, Bronze

2006 Indoor: Gold, Bronze

2005 Outdoor: Gold, Silver, Bronze

2004 Indoor: Gold, Silver, Bronze

2003 Outdoor: Gold, Silver, Bronze

2003 Indoor: Gold, Silver

2001 Outdoor: Gold, Silver

2001 Indoor: Gold, Silver

Current World Records

Outdoor: Yelena Isinbayeva, 5.03m

Indoor: Yelena Isinbayeva, 4.95m

Current American Records

Outdoor: Jennifer Stuczynski, 4.92m

Indoor: Stacy Dragila, 4.81m

" Information from UCS Spirit catalog


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Jul 30, 2008 02:25AM Published Jul 29, 2008 03:00AM Copyright 2008 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.