UT dean aims to set example with return to pole vaulting

As dean of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, Jim Thompson spends his days leading the school and working with faculty, staff and students.

But over the past school year, Thompson, 61, carved out nine to 15 hours a week, mostly in the evenings, to train for his return to competitive pole vaulting.

“It’s a tricky event and combines speed, strength and agility,” Thompson said. “It’s like flying.”

Thompson, a former high school and collegiate athlete who once set an indoor pole vaulting record at Purdue University in the early 1970s, has returned to the flight of pole vaulting after a roughly 40-year hiatus.

He says it’s all for a lead-by-example approach to wellness for himself and veterinary students.

“The college comes first. This is a secondary thing I do,” he said. “Last summer was my first jump in over 40 years.”

After a year of training, the dean competed three times this summer. Thompson placed first at the Tennessee Senior Olympics and second at the National Senior Games and the USA Track and Field National Masters.

Exercise is a way to make time for yourself, especially when levels of anxiety and stress are as high as they are for veterinary students nationwide, Thompson said.

He said students are not just dealing with the health of an animal, but with the wellness of the owner, who may have to make tough decisions.

“We want to let students know that it’s OK to feel that,” Thompson said.

To get that point across, Thompson wanted to “walk the walk” himself through exercise. He said the college is responsible for students’ education, but should also teach students how to take care of themselves as well as how to take care of animals.

He said he hopes to have more veterinary school deans onboard with the approach through the Veterinary Wellness and Social Work Summit set for November at UT.

Thompson said not many people at the college outside his leadership and advisory teams knew about his pole-vault training over the past year, and he’s hoping he can find a way to weave his wellness journey into teaching students.

It’s like being a coach, he said. Coaches want to get the best out of a team, but each player is different, so coaches can’t be too pushy.

“It’s OK to come in second,” Thompson said. “Success is doing it.”

During his training, Thompson said he often worked out from 6-9 p.m., missing dinners at home and relaxing time. He trained on campus and later started working with Olympian Tim Mack, who works with middle and high school students.

He said the training was harder than he remembered, but he found he lost weight and could concentrate better during the workday as he progressed to his goal. It’s a wellness goal he’ll continue as a way to advance his health and the health of his students.

“It was a chance to do something special, and I think everyone wants to do something special if they can,” he said.

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