Al Erickson picked up decathlon in his 70s (now 81)

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Al Erickson picked up decathlon in his 70s (now 81)

Unread postby rainbowgirl28 » Thu Aug 26, 2010 1:22 am ... 79947/1004

Late bloomer: Local decathlete picked up sport in his 70s

Al Erickson picked up track & field in his late-70s and hasn't looked back

By Larry Henry
Special to The Herald

MONROE -- Al Erickson is demonstrating his shot put technique -- in the small customer service area of the Sky River Bakery.

Fortunately, he doesn't have an iron ball in his hand or he might punch a hole in the wall on his follow-through. And, this being early afternoon, the lunch crowd has departed so he has room to show an interested observer his throwing form.

The only other person watching him is a wide-eyed little girl and she probably doesn't know quite what to make of this lean, tanned, elderly gentleman in the Navy blue workout suit standing with his right hand cupped behind his ear and his left arm extended in front of him.

What the little girl is watching is an 81-year-old marvel. A man who belies his years with a youthful energy and a passionate intensity for track and field, an endeavor that he took up in his late seventies with the zest of a 9-year-old for computer games.

Erickson could pass for a man in his sixties: tanned with glistening blue eyes, 6 feet tall, a solid 160 pounds, and lean, athletic legs. And his gait is that of a man in a hurry. At a recent track meet at Shoreline High School, he had just finished pole vaulting and was returning the fiberglass poles to the shed where they're stored: He had a pole in each hand. And he was running.

"He's like the Energizer Bunny," laughed Drew Langland, an assistant track coach at Bothell High School. "He'll be running down the (pole vault) runway yelling, 'I've got to get over to the high jump right after this or the woman who's running it is gonna get mad at me.' He's always in constant great spirits."

On the night of the Shoreline meet, an all-comers event with participants ranging in age from 1-year-old sprinters to ... well, an 81-year-old multi-event man, Erickson competed in five competitions, setting a personal record in the shot (29 feet, eight inches) and tying a PR in the pole vault (7 feet, 6 inches).

Langland, who specializes in the pole vault, was present to offer advice to anyone wanting it. And Erickson was all ears.

"He has a lot of questions," the coach said. "He's 81 and he's still trying to learn."

Is he ever. He carries around with him a 300-page book -- "Fundamentals of Track and Field" by Gerry Carr -- that he's digested, and still constantly refers to.

A number of former athletes who attained stardom in track and field, including Fred Luke, a javelin thrower at the University of Washington who competed in the 1972 Munich Olympics, are still active in the all-comer meets as members of Club Northwest. They, too, are quite willing to share their expertise with athletes such as Erickson. And he's quite willing to listen.

It creates a congenial atmosphere ... with some good-natured ribbing thrown in. When the 63-year-old Luke showed a photo of himself competing as a young man, Erickson cracked, "You weren't always ugly."

Luke just chuckled.

It was abundantly clear that he and everyone else present liked and respected the "old fossil," as Erickson referred to himself. "Whatever you do in life," he said, "you've got to have fun."

And nobody has more fun at track and field than Erickson.

He came to the sport in his late-70s, after a long career in education, the last 20 years of which were spent as a professor of wildlife sciences and marine mammalogy at the University of Washington. He was playing in an "old fogy" softball game one day in Tumwater and not really getting much enjoyment out of it.

"Discouraging," is how he described it. "Not enough running. I don't see how baseball players get so tired, aside from the center fielder."

Someone told him about a track and field meet going on across the way and, his interest piqued, Erickson went to check it out. It wasn't as if he didn't know anything about the sport. His son, Steve, had been a nationally-ranked decathlete at the UW. It's just that Al hadn't had an opportunity to play any sports when he was growing up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Later, while working at the UW, he formed a friendship with former Husky track coach Ken Shannon and began officiating at track meets. He also was a judge in the javelin at the '84 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Until that day in Tumwater, the only really competitive thing he'd ever done was in the Marine Corps at the end of World War II. "The Corps had a way to make everything competitive," he said.

Wearing softball shoes, Erickson walked over and lined up for the 100-meter dash. When the gun sounded, Erickson recalled that he was "literally spinning my wheels; the other runners had starting blocks. I didn't have gripping shoes and I caught all but one runner."

It was the same story in the 200. Another second place.

In his other two events, he jumped with the wrong foot in the high jump and went "bowling over" in the long jump. "People came running to ask, 'You all right?' "

Yeah, he replied. Only his ego was bruised.

Regardless, it was a life-changing moment.

And in 2007, he took on a monumental challenge -- the decathlon.

To skew an old saying, "Like son, like father."

It was Steve taking on the grueling 10-event challenge in the 1980s. And now, his father would give it a shot in the National Championships at Birmingham, Ala. -- at the age of 77.

And don't think this was a Tiddly-Winks kind of decathlon. It had the same events as the one in the Olympics. On the first day, the 100 meters, long jump, shotput, high jump and 400 meters. The second day, the 80 meter high hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500 meters. Only the hurdles was different for the young guys -- 110 meters.

Ten events. Two days. In stifling heat. "And I don't take heat well," he said. "But if you're going to do it, I feel you have an obligation to finish it."

He did. All 10 events. And won the meet for men 75-79.

"I won't start an event and quit," he declared. "If you don't have discipline, you take the easy way out."

Al Erickson finishes what he starts. Every time.

"I can't keep up with him," said 70-year-old vaulter Dave Butler, who has been competing in Masters events for 18 years.

"He (Erickson) does a nice job," added Fred Zapf, who lettered as a walk-on in the pole vault at Ohio State back in the '60s.

Erickson has won two major championships, and he'll go for a third next summer. "This is my serious year," he said. "The world decathlon championships will be in the states, at UC Davis."

In the past, he has adhered to a program that stresses flexibility, but plans to incorporate more strength training from now on. "This is my year to move on things if I can," he said.

The man is a true inspiration -- to people of all ages.

Including, wide-eyed little girls.

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