Guest Columnists

Old man pole vaulting

Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County.
Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County.

DUBUQUE — She uses the name Franci (pronounced Frankie) because, well, maybe her given name of Francine doesn’t sit as easily on her shoulders as someone had hoped 19 years ago and besides, Franci is a better moniker for what she is, a gregarious university pole vaulter.

You’d like her. A psychology/communications major, Franci is mostly molten energy and is always up for a chat but on this day she must leave track & field practice a bit early because she is one of those young women alien to me when I was her age, a person who attends class.

Oh, and she loves the musician Bruno Mars but that is about all I know about her except that I know something generally about her future that she will not see for quite some time. Here’s what I know and how I know it: Franci is learning how to lose. I’ll get back to you on this.

On a couple of recent spring days I joined Franci and other university pole vaulters who were kind enough to allow an old man to once again pick up a fiberglass pole after almost half a century away from it.

We practice indoors where a gymnasium sound system plays current pop music, Big Sean, The Chainsmokers, and no way I can sing along with the young people around me because these songs are today and I am yesterday, old-enough-to-be-their-grandfather yesterday, Beatles-and-Rolling-Stones yesterday.

My efforts are pathetic, laughable but Franci nails it, her coach telling me that if she can shed some bad habits from high school she’ll be much more successful and I’m thinking the guy pretty well just laid out some great life advice about high school but I keep quiet.

I spend entirely too much time humming along to the music of failure and it’s clearly music Franci doesn’t yet know. She laughs often, likely believing that she will be the first to live forever and oh my gosh I hope she’s right.


When I look around I see Death sitting in a chair over in the corner of the gym but the members of the track team see something different, their friends jogging around an overhead track, maybe a classmate wandering through the gym, long life. What they see is the now, the immediate, and someone else can worry about the future because bank loans, mortgages, babies, detritus of relationships, all of it can wait.

Back to losing. The gymnasium in which we toil is part of a school in the N.A.I.A. i.e. small. Not one of these athletes will turn professional. They participate in athletics because they enjoy it and on any given weekend at a track meet there is every possibility they’ll encounter someone stronger, faster, better. In other words, they will lose.

Losers learn humility, empathy, and grace. And let me add that being a member of a losing team is easy; other shoulders are available. Losing as an individual is a whole different deal.

The energy among these athletes is palpable and I want to warn them about what’s up ahead, slow them down, offer up some cynical advice about the future but it would be wrong so instead I again do something unlike me, keep my mouth shut in the face of important lessons athletes learn, some of it more profound than anything picked up in a classroom.

Franci is off to class, but before leaving the gym she turns and hugs an old man holding an 11-foot fiberglass pole, waiting his turn. “Great to see you again,” she says. “And you as well,” he responds, each meaning it.

• Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County.



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