Tom Hintnaus Climbed to the Top in Modeling, but He's Also Got the Hang of Pole Vaulting

UPDATED 06/25/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/25/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

When Tom Hintnaus was just 8, his father—an engineer and part-time coach—took him to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to watch Olympic pole-vaulter Bob Seagren compete in a local meet. Transfixed by Seagren's performance, Tom promptly went home, grabbed a broomstick and began hurtling himself over the backyard fence. "I thought vaulting was the greatest thing I'd ever seen," he remembers. "I told my father I wanted to do what Seagren did when I grew up, and he kind of patted me on the head and said, 'Sure.' "

A sun-washed spring noon 18 years later in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and 6', 180-lb. Hintnaus is lounging on the deck of the neat three-bedroom suburban house that he now rents from his parents, gazing out over the same backyard where he made his first vault. The seven-foot fence is still there, but Tom's goals have become considerably loftier. His little-boy broomstick gave way to a bamboo pole and, later, to serious fiberglass. In 1980 he earned his place among the world's pole-vaulting elite when he finished first in the U.S. Olympic Trials, winning a spot on the team with a vault of 18'4½".

Like the other American Olympians, Hintnaus yielded to the boycott of the Moscow Games, but come August he will assume the spotlight at last—lifting off from the same Coliseum floor that Seagren did. A citizen of both the U.S. and Brazil (where he was born while his Czech-refugee parents awaited permission to emigrate), he'll compete with the Brazilian team this time around. "I feel I've already qualified," he explains, "and I can't risk the trials again. I'll have a better chance by going directly to the Olympics."

Still, the L.A. Games won't make or break him. Hintnaus, 26, already has vaulted to the top as a model; he now commands $2,000 a day for fashion shootings, and his arresting ads for Calvin Klein underwear have transformed him into a cultural icon. It was his image that loomed five stories above Manhattan's Times Square for seven months in 1983, and his tanned, trim, brief-clad body that inspired admirers to stock up on spin-off posters and buy three million pairs of the skivvies in just three weeks. "Before we did the underwear shoot in Greece, Calvin told me that girls across the country would be putting my picture on their walls," he says of a prediction that proved understated. "Not that I mind."

Not only that, but he also flies an ultralight plane, surfs, cliff-dives, acts, makes witty home-video movies and knows enough about carpentry to have built a backyard hot tub. Add the fact that he has a relentlessly positive world view, and you have a portrait of someone who sounds just this side of intolerable. Not Hintnaus. Never mind that he was Cosmo's April 1983 Bachelor of the Month; friends report he's still a good-natured soul whose mother buys his underwear. Wearing a gray Calvin Klein sweatshirt and jeans (with Fruit of the Looms beneath), Tom looks less the tawny icon than the well-scrubbed jock. "Modeling," he says, "is a perfect tool for me. I can work once or twice a month, get my face out there and have enough money to live on. I'm lucky and I know it. I lead a storybook life."

And like a storybook hero, Hintnaus has faced his share of adversity. Three years ago an appendectomy kept Tom off the track for three months, and in January an injured Achilles tendon threatened to end his chances of competing in L.A. "After it popped, I wasn't able to vault for four months, and it seemed almost hopeless," Tom remembers. "I was getting real scared. Then I went to John Saathoff, a hypnotist who works with athletes. He started me on real positive thinking, and in a week and a half I was jumping again."

On his wrist, Tom wears a strip of rawhide knotted into a bracelet. Given to him by Saathoff, it's the precise length of the difference between Tom's 18'4½" personal best and Sergei Bubka's 19'3½" world record. "It's there," he says, "to remind me of how little the distance is between being good and being best."

Not that he needs the prodding. Fiercely competitive, he's been known to run through his house screaming with delight after beating a friend's team in baseball. "When Tom loses," says Paul Viggiano, a childhood friend who once trained with Hintnaus, "he just keeps at it until he wears out the competition. Meets where the stakes are big are the ones where he does best—when you can feel the tension in the air, he feeds on it." There's a certain bravura to all of this, and Hintnaus knows it. "That," he says, "is why I'm in these things that are so visible. I like the performance."

Performing, in one form or another, has been a part of Tom's life since his father, a onetime pro soccer player and gymnastics coach, whose students included Olympian Cathy Rigby, started him at age 3 in gymnastics shows. His mother, who works in the research and development department for IBM in Sunnyvale, Calif., placed third in discus throwing in the 1953 Brazilian championships. Tom reveled in the attention he got from track-meet crowds at Aviation High School and at the University of Oregon. In 1979 a sports photographer suggested that he send photos to a modeling agency, and the contract that Tom subsequently won paved the way for a tiny part as a gymnast in the 1980 movie Can't Stop the Music. Tom's role in a 1982 low-budget shocker called Graduation Day was more substantial. "I played a pole-vaulter who's killed off when he jumps onto a bed of spikes," he says.

Hintnaus, of course, hopes for moments of higher drama. For the nonce, there are the Olympics—and a tricky tendon—to consider. When his hypnotist arrives for a house call, Saathoff leads Tom outside, where they will perform the day's exercise in positive thinking. Asking him to close his eyes and hold out his hand, Saathoff dumps an envelope full of soil into the vaulter's calloused palm and says solemnly, "This is dirt from the Coliseum where Bob Seagren made the jump that an 8-year-old boy saw and remembered."

Smiling in wonder, Tom enfolds the dirt in his hand. At the hypnotist's direction, he walks to his palm tree, from which hangs a 24-foot rope, and strews the hallowed soil under it as a kind of offering. In April he broke his own record by climbing hand-over-hand up the rope 31 times in an hour. Until recently ("I stopped when everybody found out"), he kept his only house key at the top of the palm tree, climbing up to retrieve it every time he came home. Now he quickly hauls himself up the rope again. When he reaches the top, he hangs on, laughing, looking as if he belongs there.

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