Stevenson steals show at Millrose Games

With the amount of stars on hand and drama in the air, it would have been easy to overlook Toby Stevenson at the 97th annual Verizon Millrose Games, held Friday night at Madison Square Garden in New York.

There was fellow pole-vaulter Stacy Dragila dominating her field again, hurdlers Allan Johnson and Gail Devers each setting new Millrose records, and, of course, the dramatic return to action of Marion Jones, competing in her first race since giving birth to a son in June 2003. While Jones, who won her race with a modest time of 7.21, no doubt raked in most of the headlines, it was Stevenson who may have turned in the most exciting performance of the evening for the 14,154 fans who arrived at Madison Square Garden.

Competing in the eighth event of the evening, Stevenson seemed charged, often joking with the crowd, almost indifferent to the grand stage. With a toothy smile and stubbly chin, the easygoing Texan playfully hopped and danced on the sidelines, waiting for his turn to jump. Coming in, Stevenson was the underdog, positioned directly after Jeff Hartwig, the American record holder and former Millrose champ. If these credentials were not enough to intimidate Stevenson, consider the following: Only legendary world record holder Sergei Bubka has ever vaulted higher indoors than Hartwig.

However, Stevenson was hardly fazed. Donning his trademark helmet, Stevenson cleared his first jump of 5.35 meter easily, sparking the mostly sleepy fans into their first cheers of the night. Upon landing he leaped exuberantly and broke into one of his dances, pumping his fist and shaking his arms and legs to the crowd’s delight.

“I never take it all too seriously,” the 27-year old said later, about his unorthodox style. Shrugging his shoulders and raising his palms he added: “I mean, come on, look at what I do. I use a stick to jump over another stick.”

Yet by the end of the evening his performance was as serious as could be, finishing first with a height of 5.70 meter, just ahead of Hartwig, and securing his first Millrose victory. A breath of fresh air had swept through the Garden and it came from the wild guy with the helmet.

Stevenson started wearing a helmet in his last year of high school, after his mother saw it done elsewhere and demanded he do the same. After originally rejecting, he later succumbed and is now the only elite pole-vaulter in the world to wear one, attracting nicknames along the way such as Mad Hatter, Cannonball, Crash and Bullethead.

“I couldn’t say no to Mom,” he explained. “She said, ‘You are going to wear one or you are not going to jump.'”

Once Stevenson was done, the rest of the meet kicked into high gear. Veteran Olympian Jearl Miles-Clark cruised to victory in the woman’s 500-yard run, securing her eighth Millrose title, while her sister-in-law, Hazel Clark, also scored a victory in the 800-meter run. Hudson de Souza of Brazil posted a surprising victory in the Wanamaker Mile, one of the trademark races of the Millrose Games, which have been held at Madison Square Garden since 1908. Asafa Powell of Jamaica also pulled off an upset in the Men’s 60 Meter Dash, finishing ahead of favorite John Capel, while Devers and Johnson easily won their respective 60-meter hurdles races. For the very first time, the “Fastest Kid in New York” race was held, showcasing school children from the five boroughs. Most of the other races featured athletes on the high school and collegiate level.

However, as far as most of the diehard track fans on hand were concerned, all 39 events essentially led up to the event’s grand finale — the woman’s 60 meter dash, featuring the world’s preeminent sprinter, Jones. The track world had been waiting for this moment for 12 months, and after another four-hour wait, it had finally arrived. However, Jones seemed to wait a few seconds too long, getting off to a horrible start, before rebounding halfway through and surging past Angela Daigle just before the finish line.

“Once again the start seems to elude me,” she told a room packed full of reporters after the race. “[However] I’m happy with the win tonight. It was one of those gutsy performances; you know like in basketball when a team is not playing very well but they manage to hold out in the end…[It’s] not a great start for me but I managed to win and get my first win of the 2004 season so I am extremely pleased with that.”

Jones said she was glad all the “hoopla” was over and that she was now officially back to racing. The new mother added that she was now looking forward to heading home to North Carolina, to be reunited with her partner, 100-meter dash world record holder Tim Montgomery, and their young son, Tim Montgomery Jr.

“I’m on the first plane in the morning,” she said with a wide smile, a twinkle in her eye as her forehead shined from the bright lights above. “Earlier today I was telling Tim, ‘Gosh, I’m missing my Tim’ and he said ‘the faster you can run this race, the faster you can get home.’ So that was my motivation today.”