Dennis Sullivan: Not too old to win

SUNRIVER (AP) — Ashton Eaton is not the only Central Oregon athlete to win a gold medal this summer in the decathlon.

Meet Denny Sullivan, who, when not designing and maintaining the popular trails at Pilot Butte State Park in Bend, competes in track and field.

All at 86 years old.

Last month in the Seattle suburb of Shoreline, Wash., Sullivan placed first in the decathlon at the USA Track & Field Masters Combined Events Championships. He was the only competitor in his men’s 85-89 age division, which speaks volumes about the accomplishment of even finishing a decathlon — 10 events, staged over two consecutive days. (The decathlon includes, in order, the 100 meters, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meters, 110-meter hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw and 1,500 meters.)

The Masters Combined Events Championships are open to USATF members age 30 and older. Sullivan was the oldest competitor of them all at Shoreline, and after reflecting on the championships during a recent interview at his Sunriver home, he called the meet one of his more difficult events — he went into the competition with a leg injury and also had been battling vertigo.

The first day of the mid-July meet went well for Sullivan. The second day, however, proved to be disastrous. He misjudged a step in the 110-meter hurdles, took a fall and injured his right (throwing) arm, which made tossing the discus and javelin nearly impossible. Not to be denied, Sullivan used his left arm for the remaining events. After posting 42.13 seconds in the hurdles, he threw the discus 52-11 1/2, pole vaulted 3-11 1/4, threw the javelin 25-7 1/2, and ran the 1,500 in 10:37.86.

“The vertigo was still affecting me a little bit, and I went right through the hurdle,” he said, recounting his tumble. “I didn’t jump it, I went right through it, and it knocked me down and I came up and was dizzy. I fell three times in the hurdles.

“I at least finished,” he added, “but in the wrong lane.”

The leg injury and vertigo had given Sullivan second thoughts about taking part in the national meet. But he had his sights set on a new world decathlon record for his age group.

“After you train for months and months and months, I thought, might as well go down and see how I do,” Sullivan said. “Then when I got there, there was no one (else) in my age group, and one of the reasons I went there was, five or six years ago, I broke the world’s record.”

There would be no world record this time, though. He finished the two-day competition with 4,100 points — a respectable total, considering the health issues and the spill in the hurdles, yet disappointing. His hope had been to eclipse the existing age-group record of 6,671 points.

The Masters Combined Events Championships are sponsored each year by USATF, the same organization that oversees the U.S. track and field Olympic team (another link between Sullivan and Eaton, the decathlon gold medalist in the just-concluded London Olympic Games). USATF has been hosting masters meets since the late 1960s, and the first national championship meet was staged in 1968.

Masters competitions were not especially popular until the 1990s, according to George Matthews, USATF masters director for the Pacific Northwest region. Currently, the USATF includes 57 masters organizations, which are divided into seven regions.

Sullivan began competing in sports long before he was eligible for masters meets. He grew up in Bend and graduated in 1944 from Bend High School, where he was a member of the football and track teams.

After graduation, he volunteered for the U.S. Air Force during World War II, though he was still a cadet in boot camp when the war concluded. While he was training with the Air Force, he participated in several track and field competitions. That kept him in shape for a successful athletic career in both track and football at the University of Oregon.

Sullivan attended UO in Eugene from 1947 to 1952. His track coach there was none other than Bill Bowerman, who would become a coaching legend at Oregon and a co-founder of Nike.

Second time a charm

While at Oregon, Sullivan met the woman who is now his wife, Patsy Sullivan, 81, who was attending hairdressing school at the time. As Patsy remembers it, he took her to a dance hosted by his fraternity. After the dance, Patsy called it quits on the relationship, and the two did not speak to each other for decades. They went their separate ways, and each got married and had children. But when they moved back to Bend years later — Denny as a retired educator and coach, Patsy to open a hair salon — they were both again single. They ran into each other one evening and rekindled their relationship, and not long thereafter the two were married.

“One of the reasons I do it is the people I meet,” he said. “I meet such great people and you help each other out.”

Denny’s success can also be attributed to his complex, homemade training equipment, which includes a pole vaulting apparatus with bed mattresses as a landing pit and an indoor weight shed, which is electrically powered by a hand-built windmill.

Sullivan said he will be taking a break from competitions to let heal the injuries he sustained in his latest meet and to recover from his bout with vertigo. When he does return to the track, he said, his next major meet will be as an 87-year-old next summer at the 2013 World Masters Athletics Championships in Brazil.

He realizes that, as much as he loves the competitions, they are becoming more challenging and he can’t go on forever.

“Something people don’t realize is that the stopwatch and the tape measure don’t lie,” he said, referring to his advancing years. “It tells you how you’re dropping (off) as you grow older.”


Dennis Sullivan
Dennis Sullivan

Leave A Comment