Senior Olympians Break Barriers

Boo Morcom is one of a growing number of athletes still setting records and winning medals. SPORTS: MASTERS EVENTS

BOO Morcom may have taken a back seat to Bob Richards in their Olympic pole-vaulting days, but no more. ``I crunch him now!'' says the trim, athletic-looking 68-year-old, his eyes sparkling as he savors a rivalry that began in the 1940s and has continued through the various stages of masters and senior competition. ``He hasn't got any of my records.''

Indeed, while he finished sixth in the 1948 Olympics (``one of the very, very, very few disappointments in my life''), Morcom has been making up for it ever since. By his own estimate, he has set 200 or so world or American age-group records over the years in a broad spectrum of events. The pole vault is still his big one, but he has also won national championships or broken records (or both) in the pentathlon, the decathlon, and various individual events ranging from the long and high jumps to the 800-meter run.

Just a couple of weeks ago, in fact, Morcom cleared 10 ft. 6 in. to set a world record for his age, then raised the mark twice more on the same day with vaults of 11 feet and 11-5. And he hopes to keep it up at this week's US National Senior Olympics in St. Louis, where he is also competing in the high and long jumps, the javelin, the discus, and the 400-meters.

The Senior Olympics (see accompanying story) provide an opportunity for thousands of individuals 55 and over to compete in a multi-sport extravaganza at differing levels of intensity. Some approach it on a lower-key level, but there are also those - like Boo - whose competitive fires continue to burn strongly.

``I remember somebody asked me last time if I was there for the social aspects,'' he said during a recent interview at his home in this small town nestled into the northwest corner of Mt. Kearsarge, 33 miles north of Concord. ``I said, `No, I came here to smite people! There's room for all of us, but I came here to really try to do something.'''

He did, too, winning gold medals in the vault, the long jump, and the high jump, and competing just as hard in other events where he knew his chances weren't as good.

``I'm not afraid to go out and get whomped,'' he says. ``People like to say, `I beat Boo.' That doesn't bother me.''

Richmond Morcom was born and grew up in Braintree, Mass., where he picked up his nickname as a youngster (it was short for Bubi, a popular German doll). He intended to go by ``Richie'' when he went away to the University of New Hampshire, but some old friends were there and the nickname stayed with him.

Boo's affinity for the pole vault also began early - when he was just 10 years old.

``I was too small for sports like football and basketball,'' he says. ``A friend introduced me to pole vaulting, and he beat me. I took it as a challenge, began practicing in my back yard, and never let go.''

He began by building a runawy and vaulting with a little wooden flagpole, which he actually competed with in high school. Thus he has vaulted over the years on just about every type of pole in the evolution of equipment - from wood, to bamboo, to Swedish steel, to plastic, to fiberglass, to today's carbon fiber-reinforced poles.

HE'S also had plenty of big moments in a long and distinguished athletic career - starting in the late 1930s when he vaulted barefoot in a rainstorm at one high-school meet and cleared 11-1.

``Most kids were doing 9 or 10 feet in those days, to it attracted attention,'' he recalls. ``It got me my first headline, which is a thrill you never can duplicate. You're young, trying to be noticed, to be somebody - and now suddenly in your mind everybody on the [suburban Boston] South Shore knows who you are.''

Another memorable moment came years later, when, as a college sophomore he won the Amateur Athletic Union's national indoor championship at New York's Madison Square Garden.

``It was so electrifying,'' he says. ``I almost mean that literally; I felt as though I'd stepped on a wire. It was like a coronation - and something they can never take away from you.''

And then there was London 1948, the first Olympics since the prewar Games at Berlin in 1936.

``Walking into the Olympic Stadium was overwhelming,'' he says. ``Hearing those people go bananas. Walking behind the American flag....''

Based on his 1942 national title, it's a reasonable assumption that 1944 would have been Morcom's peak Olympic year, but World War II intervened. Still, after military service during and after the war, he remained one of the favorites in 1948, and in fact won the US Olympic trials ahead of Richards and Guinn Smith. But at the Games it was a different story.

``It was a cold, rainy, muddy day,'' he recalls. ``I passed a height, and had to wait about two hours. By then I was a blue icicle. Also, my style was to hold high on the pole and run fast, so in the mud I was at a disadvantage compared to slower and more gymnastic vaulters.''

Guinn wound up with the gold medal, Richards got a bronze, and Morcom was sixth.

``I was disappointed, of course,'' he says. ``Not so much for myself, but for the people back home. I wished I had done it for Braintree. And you didn't get another chance then. Today, these pro athletes can compete in three or four Olympics, but back then it was one and `Goodbye. Gotta go to work.'''

Richards was an exception. A minister, he was able to combine his calling with his athletic career, staying around long enough to win the gold in both 1952 and 1956 and establish himself as one of the sport's all-time greats.

BUT that was then, as they say, and this is now. ``He's five years younger than I am, but I still beat him, even up,'' Morcom notes.

Boo coached at the University of Pennsylvania from 1949 to 1962, and one of his pet projects in those days was the upgrading of women's track and field, culminating in his being the US women's field coach for the 1956 Olympics.

``I've been to the Games as an athlete, a coach, and a spectator,'' he points out. ``And without doubt, the best way to go is as a coach. When you're an athlete, your stomach is full of hot coals. The pressure is tremendous. ... But as a coach, you're into everything, part of everything - but without that terrible, terrible anxiety.''

Boo still has goals he hopes to reach: On the recent day when he set those three world records in succession, he then had the bar raised to 12-1 - which for age 68, according to the computerized curve used to measure these things, would have been the equivalent of a 20-foot vault by an athlete in his prime. He missed on this occasion, but remains optimistic that he'll make it one day.

Boo, who has three children and 14 grandchildren, has coached high school and junior high track and field for the last 15 years or so while also pursuing his avocations of art and antiques. Meanwhile he keeps on competing, traveling around the country to some 35 meets a year. And while he may not soar as high as he once did, he still displays the form of those glory days. And he still has the pride:

``When I vault, I still want everybody out there to stop and watch me,'' he says.

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