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Originally published June 5, 2013 at 9:52 PM | Page modified June 5, 2013 at 10:23 PM

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Former Huskies record holder Sternberg has died

Brian Sternberg, one of the most storied athletes in University of Washington history whose career as a world-record pole vaulter was cut short by a trampoline accident 50 years ago, died recently, a month short of his 70th birthday.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Brian Sternberg, one of the most storied athletes in University of Washington history whose career as a world-record pole vaulter was cut short by a trampoline accident 50 years ago, died recently, a month short of his 70th birthday.

Sternberg established three world marks in the pole vault in the spring of 1963, but was paralyzed from the neck down in a July accident that year while working out at Edmundson Pavilion.

His mother, Helen, who had been a caregiver for Sternberg for much of his 50-year paralysis, said her son had been hospitalized for some 15 months before his death, which she attributed to heart and lung failure.

“It was a long struggle, but he was in good spirits and always glad to see people,” she said Wednesday. “He had many, many visitors. Oh, he had so many friends. He was very fortunate that way. He was a wonderful person. I was very proud of him."

Sternberg was a 1961 graduate of Shoreline High. Two years later as a UW sophomore, he established world records of 16 feet, 5 inches at the Penn Relays, 16-7 at the Modesto Relays and 16-8 at the Compton (Calif.) Relays — all in a seven-week span.

It was in Modesto that UW long jumper Phil Shinnick recorded a world-record long jump of 27-4 — giving the Huskies two world-record holders on the same evening — but Shinnick's mark was negated by the failure of an official to operate a wind gauge that would have certified the jump.

Bill Knudsen, a Shoreline High classmate and lifelong friend, recalls that Sternberg was so strong and athletically gifted, he would routinely do some vertical push-ups by the pole vault runway during warmups, and it would intimidate opponents.

"Psychologically," Knudsen said, "they were done."

Despite Sternberg's half-century disability, Knudsen said, "I never heard him complain once."

Sternberg's mother told the Seattle Times in 1992, "He keeps his sense of humor and his sense of purpose. People gain inspiration from Brian, but I'm not sure they realize how difficult life can be.

"He tries to go somewhere every day. But just to get washed and dressed in the morning takes him 2½ hours."

Knudsen once led a brisk fundraising drive to install state-of-the-art computer equipment for Sternberg.

"I sent an email out to about 20 close friends, people who knew Brian," Knudsen said. "We raised $5,000 in about two hours. That was one of the times I realized how much love was out there for Brian."

A memorial, open to the public, will be June 22 at 2 p.m. at First Free Methodist Church, 3200 3rd Ave. W. in Seattle.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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