As the sun sets over the track at Park West’s recreation fields, Doug Rucker, in his jet blue and neon green track spikes, sets his sights on the bar staring back at him some 50 feet away.
He’s carefully set it to 6-6, a height the Mount Pleasant pole vaulter knows he will clear by at least six inches. This is easy money; he’s cleared as high as nine before.
A crowd of people gather behind the fence in front of him to watch Rucker jet down the runway and fling himself over the bar. He finds his starting mark and rocks back and forth twice.
Inhale, exhale, go.
Sprint, plant, stretch.
Up and over his sailing body soars over the pole, no problem. The strangers cheer.
“Feels good,” Rucker says of his successful landing.
By now, Rucker is used to the crowds and the incredulous looks on people’s faces when they see him pole vault. In the sense that Rucker travels to events around the state and country to improve his stock in the U.S. and World rankings, he is just like any other competitive pole vaulter. He finished 2015 ranked 26th in the U.S. and 65th in the world for his division.
But in every other sense, he is supremely different.
Doug Rucker is 69 years old. He will turn 70 in October.
And before 2015, he hadn’t vaulted in 51 years.
“My last jump in high school was 1964,” Rucker said with beads of sweat lining his forehead.
“And 2015, at the South Carolina Open Masters (marked) 51 years. At Furman again, the same place I did the last one.”
Rucker’s five-decade long hiatus began after he graduated from high school and enrolled at a technical school in Greenville in 1966, right in the middle of the Vietnam War. After two years of technical school, his draft notice arrived — though he had plans of joining the Army anyway — and he was sent to Vietnam in 1968.
Rucker spent a year in Vietnam and three in the Army before he went back to school. But by that time, he was an older student and didn’t know how is body would respond to vaulting again. Plus, his school didn’t have a track program, so pole vaulting took a back seat.
But over the years, nostalgia kicked in, particularly when the Olympics rolled around. He thought about the afternoons spent in the woods with his cousin jumping over gullies and ditches when he was 10.
He thought about the times they would skin small trees or find bamboo sticks to serve as makeshift poles to jump with and over, as they nailed poles between trees.
Eventually, a few years ago, Rucker decided it was time he do something.
“I said, ‘I can do this. I want to do this,’ ” Rucker recalled. “ ‘I’m physically able to do this. I’m ready for this.’ ”
The extra mojo to follow through with his plan came in the form of a family friend, Trista Kutcher, who medalled in the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Dublin, Ireland. Kutcher has won more than three dozen medals for gymnastics and Rucker said she participates in Special Olympics in Charleston.
“I just thought, ‘That’s an inspiration to me. I like that,’ ” he said. “I kept thinking about pole vaulting again and then one day I said, ‘I’d like to do this again.’ ”
On a random spring day shortly thereafter, Rucker drove his wife, Kirstene, over to the track at Park West. He sat her down and jumped for her, proving to them both he was ready to get back in the pit. It was Rucker’s hope that he’d re-debut at a meet 50 years — instead of 51 — after the 1964 meet at Furman. But an injury delayed his plans.
Now, he’s healthy, promising Kirstene he won’t train to the point of injury, and he competes regularly in meets around the southeast. His most recent meet was in Greenville on June 4, where he not only pole vaulted, but also competed in the long jump, triple jump and javelin throw. Rucker has qualified for the Senior Olympics in Birmingham, Alabama, next June in the javelin, 50-yard dash and high jump. He’s also an All-American by the Masters track and Field standards, for clearing 7-foot-6 in his age group.
All that’s left is to qualify for the Senior Olympics, in the pole vault, his favorite event. Rucker is quick to stress how much fellow competitors Tom Jordan of Seneca and Johnnie Dye of West Union have helped him, in addition to his coach, Tom O’Rourke. O’Rourke is currently the pole vaulting coach at West Ashley, and has been working with Rucker ever since he decided to make his comeback.
When they train together, O’Rourke intentionally invites Rucker to practice with the teenagers at West Ashley, in an effort to show them firsthand the value of chasing a dream at any age.
Rucker likes to follow the Nike motto, “Just Do It,” and plans to keep vaulting for as long as his body allows.
“For every single other person that’s watching him, if he knew the inspiration he provided us, it’s got nothing to do with results,” O’Rourke said.
“It’s the fact that this guy is saying, ‘The heck with my age. I’m going after it.’
“Wouldn’t it be cool if we all did that?”