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81 and still flying high
Times photo: Anthony Wahl Tom Hinkes recently won the World Masters Athletics Championships pole vault title in his age division in Sacremento, Calif. He first began pole vaulting in high school and said he plans to keep pole vaulting as long as hes not jeopardizing his health.

ARGYLE - For Tom Hinkes, the 80s are prime time for the sport of pole vaulting.

Hinkes first began pole vaulting back in high school. Now, just two weeks shy of his 82nd birthday, he has no plans of retiring.

And Hinkes, who lives in the town of Argyle, is among the best in his age group: He cleared 7 feet, 2 1/2 inches to win the World Masters Athletics Championships pole vault title in the 80- to 84-year-old division in Sacramento, Calif. July 15.

He practices pole vaulting at several area high schools, including Monroe. He practices with other pole vaulters at the University of Wisconsin and when he travels to Arizona, he packs his pole and practices at a nearby junior college.

"They always ask me, 'When are you going to retire?'" he said. "I will rest for a couple of months and then come November or December, I will decide whether I should go back and try it again. I will do it as long as I'm not jeopardizing my health."

The world record for pole vaulters ages 80 to 84 is 9-0 1/4. Hinkes has cleared 8-0.

"I would like to think if I stay healthy, I could add 6 more inches to my height," he said. "That would be a big accomplishment."

He first started pole vaulting with a neighbor in high school at Milwaukee Marquette.

"I kind of backed into it," Hinkes said.

He had aspirations of running the 880 meters, but when he wasn't selected, his coach asked him to pole vault. The pole vault helped Hinkes soar to a track career at Notre Dame.

After a 25-year hiatus from pole vaulting, Hinkes started again as a member of the Masters USA track and field program. Even during his 25 years working at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, he always looked at the pole vault as a way to relax.

"It was a wonderful break from the stress and strain from working," Hinkes said.

He has seen pole vaulting undergo a metamorphosis since he started. Hinkes said the poles used to be stiff and recalls vaulting with bamboo and aluminum poles in high school and college. Today, Hinkes said, the fiberglass and carbon fiber poles have made a difference. He credits better running surfaces and bigger pits for making pole vaulting much safer.

"Today, with the way they build lighter poles and fit them for your height and weight, the speed an athlete can generate allows them to get more bend on their pole," Hinkes said.

Hinkes said he enjoys the camaraderie of pole vaulting. He also enjoys the rivalry he has established with Jerry Donnelly of Colorado Springs; Donnelly finished second at the world championships in California to Hinkes.

"Beating him in a World Games was very satisfying," Hinkes said.

Hinkes is looking forward to vaulting again even after he turns 82.

"If I wasn't in good shape I wouldn't do it," he said. "I have been fortunate. I haven't had any setbacks."