Michael Hochderffer has picked up pole vaulting in two different phases of life, each time falling in love.
The first time around he was a seventh grader who grabbed the closest cable antenna, a 2-by-4 and a bale of hay and set up in his back yard. That worked until the antenna snapped, the subsequent fall dislocating his shoulder.
Once he finally found a real pole, Hochderffer kept trying to achieve height dominance of the bar until a year after graduating from Pittsburg High School in the Bay Area.
Somehow, his desire for the sport eventually dissipated. Even he can’t explain it.
His next foray into flinging himself through the air came 30 years later as a science teacher tasked with coaching the track and field team at newly built Pioneer High.
“We got the pole vault out (and) I said, ‘I used to do this,’” Hochderffer, now 62, said with a laugh. “It was just a dirt run, we didn’t really have any poles.”
Nowadays the school has a few poles, provided by Hochderffer, and several vaulting athletes.
The most successful is Keenan Calhoun, a recent graduate who tied the school record this spring and then twice topped it in the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs. Calhoun’s leap of 14 feet, 9 inches at the section’s Masters Meet in May is the new school mark.
When Calhoun couldn’t quite clear the 15-3 height needed to net a ticket to the CIF State Meet, Hochderffer gave the kid some space before approaching him.
The two vaulters spent 30 seconds exchanging nonverbal communication under a half-down E-Z Up in the Elk Grove High School stadium. Then Calhoun and Hochderffer hugged.
“I can’t explain what me and him have been through,” Calhoun said of his coach. “Every time I’ve been at a low in my life, he’s been there, he’s put a pole in my hand and he’s told me to jump.”
Hochderffer knows the power pole vaulting has in improving one’s mental state, though his 30-year hiatus from the sport didn’t deter him from a happy life.
After earning his credential, Hochderffer taught at Longfellow Elementary School in Oakland for five years and ran in the Oakland Marathon in 1976. “I always stayed athletic,” he said.
When his wife Sara Russell, an environmental lawyer, was hired by the state’s attorney general in the early ’80s, the couple moved north to the state capital.
Hochderffer applied around and eventually landed at Zamora Elementary in Woodland. Four years there and one at Douglass Middle School preceded Pioneer’s opening in 2003.
When the new high school started searching for a track and field coach, Hochderffer offered his help. Since then, he’s sporadically acted as the Patriots’ head coach — always welcome to other assistance.
One example is Alex Garcia nee Fernandez, a former Woodland vaulter who was co-head coach with Hochderffer last spring.
Another is Barry Reese, who has taught history and coached boys basketball since the school opened. Reese agreed to add track and field coach to his responsibilities in part because he knows how passionate Hochderffer is about pole vaulting.
“If you ask him about pole vaulting, you’ll need to have an hour or two to spare,” joked Reese in an indication of both the coaches’ repartee and Reese’s preference for running events.
Hochderffer spends tons of time vaulting when he’s not biking with Russell and “a group of old people who go on rides.” He will be able to vault even more now that he’s retired from Pioneer.
Though Hocherffer still hasn’t matched 14 feet like he reached in his one year at Diablo Valley College, he’s ranked 12th in the world among men aged 60-and-over in outdoor competition, according to Masters Rankings. His top recorded vault was 3.51 meters, equivalent to 11 1/2 feet, in September 2013 and his best this year is 3.20, or 10 1/2 feet, at the Bay Area Senior Games in May.
Vaulting seems to be in his blood — and apparently, his last name. In German, Hochderffer means “high villager.
“The joke in the family is, either our ancestors lived in the mountains and they were villagers,” he said, “or they were nobleman — because they fought with Napoleon, so they had a lot of money — and one of our ancestors married a commoner.”
Or, just maybe, his forebears frequently jumped into the air to surpass a bar. Hopefully they used something sturdier than an antenna.