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After 54 Years, He's Poles Apart : 75-Year-Old Vaulter Has Gone from Bamboo to to a World Record

May 07, 1987|IRENE GARCIA | Times Staff Writer

People constantly come up to Carol Johnston and tell him how much they admire what he's doing.

"I'm sure I've heard it 100 times," Johnston said. "People say, 'I hope I'm doing what you're doing when I'm your age.' "

That's because he's 75 and fit.

Johnston is 6 feet tall, slim and muscular for his age. He can often be seen running laps around the track of Mt. San Antonio College or working on his specialty, the pole vault. That's right, the pole vault.

In 1933, when vaulters were using heavy bamboo poles, Johnston was a vaulter at Drake University in Des Moines and held the Iowa state indoor record at 9-9 3/4.

Fifty-four years later, he still holds a record in his favorite track event. Only this time it's a 9-6 world record in his age group.

"Today it's an entirely different event," Johnston said. "The poles were a lot heavier in those days and they didn't bend 90 degrees like they do now."

Johnston got back into vaulting after a half-century absence at the suggestion of a friend who said he ought to join the Trojan Masters Track Club, which is affiliated with USC. Johnston, who received his master's degree from USC, liked the idea.

"I thought it would be great after teaching for so many years and writing 10 math books to come back and vault again," he said.

In his first year with the Trojan squad, when he was 71, he broke the U.S. pole vaulting record for his age by going 9-1.

A couple of years later, his 10-foot performance broke the world record for 73-year-olds, and since then he's dominated vaulting in his age group.

"He's extremely skilled in his event," said former USC coach Vernon Wolfe, president of the Trojan Masters Track Club. "He's tougher than nails and loves to compete. That's why he's doing what he's doing."

Attired in gym shorts, a sporty short-sleeved shirt and running shoes, Johnston sits in the study of his Whittier Hills home looking around proudly at what covers its walls.

"That was the last time I was involved with vaulting before I started competing again when I was 71," he said, pointing to a black and white photo.

The photo is of a much younger Johnston with the Boys' city champion team that he coached at Huntington Park High where he was a physics teacher in 1940.

There are other illustrations of Johnston vaulting in Batanoosh, La., where he swept the title for 74-year-olds last year at 9-9, and Rome where he placed first in the high jump as well as the pole vault.

"I stopped vaulting when I was 21 because I got hurt," Johnston said. "We used to run on cinder tracks and had very thin soles. We didn't use spikes like today and I injured my heel.

"So it is great to be doing it again and to be able to go to meets all over the world and meet all sorts of different fellows."

Included in his trophies and plaques are medals from the Athletic Congress Masters National Championship, the World Veterans Games and the Mt. SAC relays.

These are mingled with photos of him playing tennis and skiing and his Drake plaque for track accomplishments from 1930 to 1933.

"I never let myself get out of condition," Johnston said. "I play lots of volleyball and badminton and do a lot of skiing. But if nothing else, I go for a run in the hills. I'd be unhappy if I wasn't in shape. "

The retired teacher started his athletic career long ago on the farm in Iowa where he grew up. Johnston was 12 when he saw the boy next door pole vaulting in the backyard and decided to give it a try.

"I used the horses to build a sand pile and cut myself a hickory green pole."

What started out as an experiment became an obsession. As soon as he was old enough to drive and didn't have to ride his horse to high school, he joined the track team.

Johnston, who retired from teaching 14 years ago and has a 50-year-old daughter, a 40-year-old son and a 24-year-old grandson, hasn't lost that enthusiasm and determination he possessed as a child in Iowa.

He gets up every morning at 6 and stretches for about an hour before going into his garage to lift weights and work on a rope pull. He tops that off with a jog and sprints.

"I take a physical once a year and the doctor says I can keep pushing," he said. "I'm just very lucky to have good health, and while I do I'll keep at it."

Johnston will represent the Trojans in more than a dozen meets this year all over the country. His priority is to keep his record, but he's also set a new goal. He wants to vault two feet over the present record.

"I'm going to try to do it, but if I can't there's one thing for sure, I'm not going to give up. I don't dare stop being active."

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