Dan Watson remembers watching the Olympics on television back in the early- or mid-1960s. Bob Seagren, a pole vaulter from the United States, had the world record.
“I remember saying ‘That’s what I want to do,’” he said.
So like any kid, he placed a couple cinder blocks in the family corn field, used a few cane poles as standards and cross bars and began practicing the pole vault.
I mean, everybody did that, didn’t they?
Watson’s early days pole vaulting in the corn field didn’t anger his father John Watson.
“Dad saw some potential,” Dan said. “He went to Johnson Controls in Greenfield and got some foam seats. He bought my first fiberglass pole.
“My parents hauled me all around the country, going to track meets. Even in college, they didn’t miss a meet.”
Watson tried out for the basketball team at East Clinton as a freshman but didn’t make the cut.
“Probably the best thing that happened to me,” he said, looking back on the situation.
At the time, though, “I was devastated,” he admits.
However, Watson was then able to focus all his energy on track and field, specifically the pole vault.
“I wanted to be good at it,” he said.
As a senior at East Clinton, Watson was the only member of the boys track team. He’s not even certain the school officially sponsored his efforts back then.
Greg Cady acted as coach and took Watson to meets during the season.
“I was doing well enough on my own, if I had any kind of ticket for college, that was going to be it,” he said.
Unfortunately, Watson’s high school career ended prematurely. With a 12-6 vault during the season, Watson was among the best in the state, fourth overall in fact, he recalls. But at the district meet in Dayton, Watson was unable to clear the opening height.
“I can’t explain it,” he said. “Some days you have it, some days you don’t.”
Watson said Wilmington College expressed an interest in him to join its track and field team but he landed at Eastern Kentucky University.
And, more importantly, with coach Wilbert Davis. Davis had the EKU record for the pole vault and was the Ohio Valley Conference champion in 1969.
“He told me you are only as good as your competition,” Watson recalled. “If you don’t compete against people better than you, then there’s nobody to push you.
“I didn’t understand what he meant at the time.”
Watson quickly figured it out.
One technical issue fixed by Davis was getting Watson to switch sides of the pole. He was told he was jumping on the wrong side of the pole and the move paid immediate dividends.
He went from 12-6 in high school to 13-6 at EKU after just one semester. That was good enough to get the walk-on an athletic scholarship.
“I jumped on the wrong side of the pole all through high school because I didn’t have a coach who told me I wasn’t doing it the right way,” Watson said.
Watson eventually cleared 15-4 at EKU and won the OVC pole vault championsip his junior year by clearing 15-0 at the conference meet.
The next year, Watson’s goal was to clear 16-0.25 and make the Olympic Trials for the Montreal Games. His best was an ever-so-painful 16-0.
“So close but yet so far,” he said. “I cried like a baby.”
After college, Watson’s next pole vaulting goal was the Senior Olympics when he turned 50. However, a serious knee injury ended that dream.
“I started jogging and doing wind sprints (around Sabina),” he said. “Something pulled in my knee and I went down. I crawled back to the house.”