It’s a surprising site: A regulation pole vault runway, bar and landing pit, tucked behind a barn and corn crib on a farm east of Chebanse.
It’s more shocking when you realize that this isn’t something that parents installed for an aspiring high school athlete. Instead, 65-year-old Larry LaGesse built this backyard training center for his own return to track and field competition.
Yes, 47 years after the Bradley-Bourbonnais High School senior set the All-City Track Meet record — with a leap of 12 feet,1 1/2 inches — LaGesse is planning to enter the USA Track & Field Masters Division meets. In fact, the array of equipment on his lawn indicates that he might just enter the decathlon competition.
“Well, I moved [from Manteno] out to this little farm five years ago, and I had room for all of my hobbies: Shooting, gardening, everything,” he said. “Then, one day I was looking up something else and I saw this ‘Masters Track and Field.’
“I looked at the records by age division, and I saw the pole vaulting record [for the 65-70 age group] in Illinois was something like 10 feet. And I figured I could still do that.”
In fact, LaGesse, a recent retiree from the construction field, has only gained about 10 pounds over his high school weight. He still has the necessary upper body strength, but he’s had to work on the sprinting speed and the technique required with the new fiberglass poles.
“I’ve been lucky and not so lucky, so far,” LaGesse said. “I was fortunate to have some friends who helped me with the concrete and the old conveyer belt runway. And I was lucky to have some friends at Olivet [Nazarene University] who help me and give me a place to practice indoors.
“But I’ve had a couple injuries that knocked me out of the first couple of meets I signed up for,” he said. “I’m feeling better now, so I’m working on a little of everything. I have my setup for the discus and another area where I practice the shot put.”
He can’t adjust to the newer “Fosbury Flop” technique, but LaGesse can also high jump. He gets in a little running, but he doesn’t need to be an outstanding sprinter or distance runner to win decathlons at this level. He has the skill that most competitors lack: The art of flying on the end of a 10-foot pole.
“It did feel funny to try it again after 46 years,” he said. “On one hand, I has some of the muscle memory and I remembered the feelings. On the other hand, I felt a little like: What am I doing, trying to do this again?”
LaGesse still recognizes the unmatchable sensation when the flexing pole unleashes its upward force and propels the vaulter beyond the height of the pole and over the bar. But there is more work on the ground before he can fly again.
“But what I’d really like is to find a training partner. You know, my age or younger, but somebody to keep me going. I’m real grateful for [pole vaulter] coach Walt Cramer at Olivet, but it would be nice to have somebody to work with out here.”
With more training, LaGesse can join the thousands of athletes who participate in the USA Track & Field Masters events. The sanctioning body, formerly known as the Amateur Athletic Union, is primarily involved with Olympics-quality athletes, but the Indianapolis-based organization governs the growing ranks of athletes not willing to give up the games.