NEW YORK -- Two years ago, Millrose Games meet director Howard Schmertz had to be prodded into including the women's pole vault on the program. The event has caught on so quickly that pole vaulter Melissa Mueller will grace the cover of this year's program.
Mueller earned the honor by setting a then-American record of 14 feet, 8Ü inches, and being voted the outstanding athlete at last year's Millrose Games. Two days later, she raised the record to 14-9 at Boston.
Her original record performance came one year after Stacy Dragila set the U.S. mark of 13-9 in the event's introduction into the long-established Millrose Games.
Dragila missed last year's Millrose Games while recovering from surgery to repair a fractured navicular bone in her foot, but later in the season she won the world outdoor title and equaled the world record, soaring 15-1.
Now, the two will compete against each other at this year's Millrose Games, on Feb. 4 in Madison Square Garden, and Schmertz predicted the confrontation "could be the highlight of the meet again."
Mueller and Dragila also are anxious for the meeting.
"Stacy and I are looking forward to jumping at Millrose," said Mueller, who competed in 1998 but was not at full strength because of illness.
"The fans have been wonderful, supporting the women to go to higher and higher heights. It was always a men's event, but now women's have put a lot of glamor in it. You feel the energy the fans give you."
Dragila said, "I'm excited to compete against Mel. She had problems outdoors last year (because of four ankle sprains). One of us will go for the record."
Dragila, ranked No. 1 in the world and the U.S. indoor champion five of the past six years, opened her 2000 indoor season two weeks ago and cleared 14-6, then just missed at 15-0. Mueller will make her season's debut this weekend in a pole vault summit at Reno, Nev., where Dragila also will compete.
Mueller is not expecting an outstanding performance at Reno, after starting training two weeks late for this season to compensate for the late dates of the Olympic Games in Australia. But she is "looking to peak at Millrose" and at next month's national championships at Atlanta.
While the women's progress has been rapid -- Mueller cleared only 10-7 in her first competition in January 1996, Dragila vaulted an American indoor record 10-0 in 1994 -- their heights pale in comparison to men, whose world indoor and outdoor record are just over 20 feet, both held by Sergei Bubka.
Cornelius Warmerdam, using a bamboo pole -- fiberglass is used now -- was the first man to clear 15 feet, accomplishing the feat outdoors in 1941 and indoors in 1943. Warmerdam was so superior to the vaulters of his day that he cleared 15 feet 43 times before another vaulter, Bob Richards, did it.
Mueller and Dragila agree that women won't ever reach the heights attained by men, but will take the bar up a couple of more feet.
"You need a great deal of power and strength coming down the runway (to go 20 feet)," Mueller said. "Because of genetics, we won't be able to run as fast as them. But I think we will move into the 16-foot range in a couple of years."
"Twenty feet is an amazing height," Dragila said. "We don't have the strength that men do. But women will approach 16´-17 feet in the next 10 years. Seventeen feet is attainable. Twenty feet, I don't think so."
Still, with the women's vault making its debut at the Olympics this year and the women continuing to raise the bar rapidly, the event has generated much enthusiasm.
"I didn't think we would get so much publicity so quickly," Dragila said. "I thought the guys would hate us because we were taking away from them. A lot of people didn't think we would jump 14 feet."