Pole vaulters are a solitary breed. They practice alone, doing strange drills no one else comprehends, not even themselves sometimes; working to pull and contort their bodies over building-tall heights in a single bound.

One member of the club is George Mason University junior Istvan Bagyula, 22. The Hungarian bettered a world-class field Friday night in East Rutherford, N.J., winning the Meadowlands Invitational vault in a national collegiate indoor record of 19 feet 0 1/4 inches. The former mark of 18-10 was set nine years ago by Billy Olson of Abilene Christian.

Olson and others his age dominated the event in this country for much of the last decade, and in Bagyula's Friday victory many of his competitors were older.

ESPN's coverage concentrated on Kory Tarpenning, the top American in the event, ranked fifth in the world. But the vaulters struggled at the lower heights, and ESPN left to cover the other events. The next time viewers saw the pole vault, they saw a replay of Bagyula setting his college record and missing at 19-4.

Bagyula's performance last weekend in the Mobil 1 meet at his school didn't indicate a record was coming anytime soon. He failed to defend his title with a subpar effort of 18-4 1/2.

Until Friday, his best was 18-8 3/4, recorded earlier this year in the Sunkist Invitational in Los Angeles. Since then, back pains, attributed to a sprained muscle, have plagued his workouts. This past week was his first full week of practice, he said.

Bagyula is, perhaps, even more individualistic than most vaulters. Track is not a team sport, he emphasized. "It's not like basketball." He and his coach, Endre Gagyi, practice by themselves every day on their own schedule. But he did appreciate the crowd at the Meadowlands Friday night.

"The thousands of people helped, all of them cheering," he said. "It's hard to say why {it helped}. It shows they just care. They wanted to see good competition and I hope they didn't leave disappointed."

While the others floundered (Tarpenning came closest, clearing 18-4 1/2), Bagyula made the event exciting on his own. He cleared 18-4 1/4 on his second jump, needed two attempts again at 18-8 1/4 and used all three to clear 19-0 1/4.

"The others didn't do well, but they're great names and that's always motivating," he said.

Bagyula stands out from his peers in other ways. He has an unusual practice regimen, simply vaulting over and over, eschewing weightlifting, speedwork and other techniques that are rituals for most U.S. vaulters.

"I don't think my speed and strength limit me now to go higher," he said. "My limit is my technique." He added that there is no such thing as perfect technique and was hard-pressed to explain how he does what he does, not even to other vaulters.

"They kept saying I have a very, very good takeoff and how do I get it," he said. "I couldn't tell them. It's something no individual can explain. I do a lot of pole vaulting, basically. That's it. It takes a lot of practice. That's what matters."

In other events, 20-year-old Algerian Noureddine Morceli missed the world record for the indoor mile by a second, although he was close to the pace at the half (1:54). He clocked 3:50.81. Eammon Coughlin's mark is 3:49.78, set at the Meadowlands in 1983.

The indoor season's top sprinter, Andre Cason, won his fourth straight race, taking the 55 meters in 6.18.