One day when Jim Moeller was a boy, a large roll of new carpet arrived at his home in Illinois. It came wrapped around a bamboo pole — a pole that was just right for practicing the pole vault. He took up the sport in earnest in junior high, and vaulted to record-setting heights in high school. Then, after a lapse of more than 20 years, he picked up the sport again — at the age of 43. Now he competes in masters’ competitions, coaches in the summer through Fuzion Athletics and helps out unofficially at Eagan High School, where his daughter pole-vaults.
WHY NOT? “You usually think of [pole vaulting] as a high school or college sport, although I know one woman who picked it up at age 40. When I left investment banking, I was three pounds shy of 200 pounds. When I started a consulting business in 2002 [Moeller Ventures, an intellectual property research company for tech companies and IP law firms], I was able to start getting back in shape after getting out of the corporate grind. I did some 10Ks and half marathons, but I got kind of bored, so I started looking for something different. Then, coincidentally, I ran into a group of masters who pole-vaulted and I thought, ‘Why not?’ Today, I’m probably 175 pounds, and my ideal vaulting weight is 170, 165.”
SETTING THE BAR HIGH “If a school doesn’t have coaches with expertise, the kids struggle. I was pretty good at it right away because we had good coaching. My best ever was 14’9 as a senior in high school. I finished third at state that year, 1981, and I had the highest jump that year of the small schools. I had some attention from colleges, but I didn’t pursue them. College for me wasn’t about pole vaulting; I wanted to get an electrical engineering degree from [the University of] Illinois.”
BACK TO CAMP “I signed up for a summer camp [at age 43] like any high school student. The very first season I pulled a hamstring in my left leg three times. After running road races, you think you’re kind of in good shape, but pole vaulting is a lot of sprinting, a whole bunch of conditioning, and weightlifting, agility and gymnastics.”
REAL HURDLES “I also had a sort of freak accident that set me back. I broke my collar bone training in my basement in 2011. As a generalization, if you look across the pole vault nationwide, most of the significant injuries occur because of a lack of proper technique or knowledgeable coaching. The accident at the University of Minnesota 11 years ago, where a vaulter by the name of Kevin Dare died, was an exception to that generalization. He was an experienced vaulter and had a horrible accident. As for my injury, it was the result of my own carelessness and complacency. I have a pole vault rope-swing training setup in my basement. I use thick foam pads on my basement concrete floor in case of accident — hands slipping off the rope, etc. I got complacent and trusted the setup without periodically checking it. As it turned out, the rope was slipping out of the hook that secures it to the ceiling. One day I was demonstrating a drill for my daughter, was carelessly doing this drill without the pads under the rope, the rope completely slipped out and I fell on the back of my right shoulder and broke my collar bone. It was an important and painful reminder that attention to safety detail can’t take a day off. But like any ‘extreme sport’ there is always an injury risk. We just try to do everything we can to reduce that risk.”
TRAINING TO DEFY GRAVITY “As a self-employed individual, I can manage my own time a little better, and I can work in the variety of training required to pursue this. In a typical week, I do one or two sprint sessions. It’s a really physically demanding, strenuous sport on the body. Flexibility and injury prevention are high on my list. I sprint on grass if I can. And I do weightlifting sessions as well, and gymnastic routines in my basement.”
THE MASTER “Since turning 50 in October, I’d like to get back over 13 feet. That would be a new age group record [in Minnesota, but] I think my perspective on records changes as I get older, and the ‘official’ overall records become less important for me. It’s really more of a personal goal thing. At the master level if you’re not doing it for your own pure enjoyment and personal challenge … then you’re in the wrong sport.”