Sport: Pole Vault
Born: May 15, 1935
Town: Penns Grove
Donald George Bragg was born May 15, 1935 in Penns Grove. Tall, fast and powerful, Don was drawn to track and field sports, and particularly pole vaulting. At 6’3” he was considered too big for the sport, but Don stuck with it in part because he believed it would help him fulfill his goal of playing Tarzan in the movies. After winning vaults, he mimicked Weissmuller’s signature Tarzan cry.
Don hung ropes from tree branches around his home in the Pine Barrens and swung from one to the other, a la Johnny Weissmuller. This no doubt contributed to his massive shoulders and legendary upper-body strength. It’s also how he met his future wife, Theresa, who as a little girl often rode on his back as he glided through the trees.
Don competed for the Penns Grove High team, helping the Red Devils establish themselves as one of the top track and field schools in South Jersey. He earned a track scholarship to Villanova in 1953 and by his sophomore year was the nation’s top college pole vaulter and earned a world ranking. He won meets indoors and outdoors, but preferred competing indoors. In 1957, Don tied for the AAU indoor championship. After graduating, he tied for the title again in 1958, and then won it outright three years in a row beginning in 1959.
Don favored aluminum composite poles over fiberglass. Because of his size, he had to stay on a strict diet for fear of bending the pole. Once, while carrying the pole at a train station, it touched an overhead wire and he nearly electrocuted himself.
In 1959, Don won his first international gold medal, at the Pan American Games in Chicago. That year he also set an indoor world record with a vault of 15' 9½" . He made the U.S. Olympic team for the 1960 Summer Games in Rome, setting a world outdoor record of 15' 9¼" in qualifying. His main competition on the international stage was Vladimir Bulatov of the USSR. After Bulatov fractured an ankle in qualifying, Don won gold in Rome easily at 15’5”, finishing ahead of USC’s Ron Morris. On the medal podium, Don gave his best Tarzan yell.
After the Olympics, Don was actually offered the part in a couple of films, but was unavailable both times due to injury. He did make one low-budget Tarzan film, in 1964, but it was never released. Don became the Athletic Director at Stockton College in Galloway Township. He also ran a popular summer camp. Don and his wife retired to Northern California. At age 60, he could still bench-press 400 pounds.
At the 50th anniversary of the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Don gave a speech and then brought the crowd to its feet with—what else?—a hearty Tarzan yell.