Mike Soule and Wayne Andersen prove that you're never too old to take a flying leap.
Soule, a 71-year-old North Branch, Minn., resident, and Andersen, 71, of Shoreview, are at the age when a lot of people might think about getting into golf or pickleball to stay active.
Instead, they've taken up pole vaulting.
Or more accurately, they've gotten back into the sport. As teenagers they competed against each other for their Wisconsin high schools. Nearly a half-century later, they're picking up the poles again as coaches and competitors in master track and field meets and senior games. As far as they can tell, they're the oldest pole vaulters in Minnesota.
"Every time I show up for a meet, there's no one's in my age category," Andersen said.
"We're kind of it," Soule said.
Soule has been fascinated with pole vaulting since he was a 7-year-old growing up in Luck, Wis. His dad was on the school board, so Soule tagged along to meetings and hung out at the school gym, where he was mesmerized by high schoolers pole vaulting and landing in a pit lined with hay bales and filled with sawdust.
He went home and tried it for himself, using a metal conduit pipe to try to launch himself over a bamboo fishing pole suspended between some peach crates he found in the garage.
"I was kind of good at it," he said.
He competed in junior high school, then for Hudson High School, where he set a school record. But when he went to the University of Arkansas in 1970, he got on the football team, playing until injuries cut short his athletic career.
It wasn't until after watching the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens that he thought about pole vaulting again. When America won Olympic gold and silver in the men's event, "I looked at the wife and said, 'I wonder if I could pole vault again?' " Soule said.
Her reply: "Just make sure your insurance is paid up."
Undeterred, he googled "track and field for old people," and "old people pole vaulting." He eventually contacted a Texan named Doug "Bubba" Sparks, who runs the bubbapv.com website, dedicated to masters pole vaulting.
"He emails me back and says, 'Welcome back, brother,' " Soule said.
By 2005, Soule was doing what he did when he was kid: building a pole vaulting pit in his own backyard in Wyoming, Minn. This time around, the equipment was a lot better than fishing poles and peach crates, with a lighting system, a portable rubber runway and a foam landing pad.
Soule, who began calling himself "the vaulting geezer," competed at the National Senior Games and USA Track & Field Masters Championships.
"I've got a shoebox full of medals at home. But everyone gets those if you do it long enough," Soule said.
He also has more than 100 pole vaulting poles.
"One size does not fit all," he said.
He can't clear the 12 feet, 7 1⁄2 inches he once jumped during high school. "My best is 9 foot, 6 inches about five years ago," he said. "But I don't care if it's 7 feet, 8 feet or 9 feet. If you get a good jump and you clear it, it takes you 50 years back to when you were a kid."
Soule started the G-Force Pole Vault Club, teaching hundreds of teenagers and coaching at Forest Lake High School. He also has helped older athletes get back into pole vaulting.
"I do a lot with geezers — I mean old guys," he said.
One of the old guys Soule helped get back into the sport was Andersen.
Over the top
Andersen, who grew up in Balsam Lake, Wis., started pole vaulting as a high school freshman. His coach was his dad, Al Andersen, who also coached football, basketball, gymnastics and track as well as teaching driver's education at Unity High School in the small western Wisconsin town.
Al Andersen, who is 92 and still living in Balsam Lake, remembers his son "was pretty fired up about it. The kid worked his heart out," he said. "He got pretty doggone good."
"It was my passion," Wayne Andersen said. "I loved vaulting."
In high school, he cleared 13 feet, 10 7/8 inches. But after getting injured vaulting for what was then called Stout State University in Menomonie, Wis., he gave up the sport. A couple of years ago, he found himself wondering what the world record was for a 70-year-old pole vaulter.
When he got in contact with Soule, they realized they competed against each other as high schoolers in the Wisconsin pole vaulting sectionals the year that Andersen went on to win the state high school championship.
"I told him, 'I'll get you jumping again,' " Soule said of Andersen.
Now Andersen has his own vaulting club and he's coaching vaulting at Blake High School.
Earlier this summer, he competed in a USATF Minnesota Association Open & Masters Outdoor Track & Field Championship at Macalester College, where he cleared 8 feet and was the oldest competitor.
Andersen said returning to the sport after such a long absence was "almost like riding a bike," except the stresses on the body are a lot tougher to handle.
"At 71, it takes five times longer to recover," he said.
For his part, Soule has continued vaulting, even after getting both hips replaced. A recent cancer diagnosis put a pause on competing. But he still hopes to vault again.
He got back to coaching within four days of having an operation to remove some cancerous tissue from his lungs.
"My plan is to get back at it," Soule said. "I'll do it as long as I can, because it's good for me. Anytime I can grab a stick, I'll get in a pit."