Pole-vaulter Popp still raising the bar

Some guys in their late 30s, especially with three children under age five, might like to relax by spending time with family at the cottage.

Others might look forward to beer-league hockey or slo-pitch two nights a week. Still others might relax by checking things off the honey-do list and puttering around the garage.

In that regard, Marcus Popp is unlike any other 38-year-old in Canada. He spends his spare time doing the pole vault.

While some people after a long workday might sneak off to the gym for a workout, Popp has set up a custom pole vault pit at his workplace, G & P Welding and Ironworks on Seymour Street.

Just in case anyone gets that urge, you know, to sprint down a runway and vault 15 feet into the air.

Other activities, such as men’s-league soccer and mountain-biking, are considered training for pole vault.

Once Canada’s top-ranked men’s pole-vaulter, who competed at the 1998 Commonwealth Games, Popp’s passion for the sport hasn’t waned as he approaches his 39th birthday.

At Cundari Field during the Nipissing Invitational meet last Saturday, Popp showed up with his two daughters and his five-metre long poles to get some work in with national-level coach Brian Risk.

A small audience watched in awe as he cleared heights of 4.50 metres. Next month, he’ll be in Calgary for another Canadian Track and Field Championship, which also serves as Olympic Trials.

He has no illusions of going to the Olympics — no Canadian men’s pole vaulter has reached the Olympic standard of 5.70 m — but he still has the competitive drive to measure himself against the country’s best.

“The intentions are definitely not to go out and win nationals anymore, but at this stage, I’m still privileged I can go to those senior nationals and compete at a reasonable level without getting too ambitious,” he said. “When it’s in your blood, it’s hard to let it go.”

In the last couple of years, Popp has fallen out of Athletics Canada’s Top-10 rankings — he’s had seasonal-bests of 4.61 and 4.55 m the past two years — but as recently as 2008, at age 35, he was ranked seventh in the nation at 4.70 m.

This summer, he hopes to get closer to the five-metre mark as he becomes more active in Ontario and Canadian Masters Athletics competitions for athletes aged 30 and older who compete within respective age groups.

“At one point, you do have to admit you are getting older, but it does open up other opportunities to stay active in the sport and still be competitive, although in a different age bracket,” Popp said.

“You definitely take it in stride that you are aging and you have a family and your priorities do shift. But five metres should be achievable, I think.”

At his best, during his Commonwealth Games days in the late 1990s, Popp cleared a height of 5.35 metres. However, there is no way to avoid the physical challenges brought on by age.

“Any injuries you’ve ever had, they probably hurt more now than they did when I was younger,” he said.

There are obvious time constraints with a young family, work responsibilities and limited training opportunities, but the passion is still there, a passion Risk has witnessed first-hand from the beginning.

Risk began working with Popp shortly after he took up the sport as a Widdifield Secondary School student nearly 25 years ago.

“Pole-vaulters tend to be very passionate about the event,” said Risk, a longtime Chippewa coach who has extensive national-team experience coaching the country’s top pole-vaulters. “It’s tough to walk away if you’re having fun with it.

“Marcus has the benefit of a good gene pool. He’s healthy, he’s strong and he’s fast, so he can continue to have fun with it even at his age.”

Including junior national events, next month’s Olympic Trials will be the 19th Canadian championship in which Popp has competed.

“Is he going to jump 5.35 metres again? Probably not,” Risk said. “At that age, you just don’t have the speed you used to have. But he still has the technical ability to jump very well.

“I think his goal is to stay active and to stay at full potential for his age. And for his age, he’s probably the best in the country. If he goes on to the world circuit, he will be competitive at his age. He’s still a very talented performer.”

While elite track and field athletes commonly give it up by their mid-30s when family and work responsibilities arrive, Popp attributes his staying active to personal drive.

“I know a lot of people my age don’t have the ambition to do those few extra situps or pushups when they come home from work once the kids are put to bed,” he said. “But I think I’m very ambitious to still be somewhat healthy. You have to want to stay fit.

“The other thing is, having young kids, they’re getting to the age now where they actually understand what I’m doing. They see me active and they’re active as well. That active lifestyle is going to be ingrained in them and I think that’s a driving force in what keeps me going, too. When you have kids, you want to be that role model for them.”

Which is why there is sometimes a custom pole vault pit set up at G & P Welding and Ironworks, thanks to loaner mats from St. Joseph-Scollard Hall.

Popp is ranked among the world’s elite in the men’s 35-to-39 age group. In a couple of years, his world ranking should shoot up when he becomes a “rookie” in the 40-to-44 age group.

“When my body doesn’t work anymore, that’s probably when I’ll stop,” Popp said. “But why would I set an end date on something I love doing?

“When you enjoy doing it, you have to do it as long as you can. And it definitely makes me happy. It’s my release.”




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