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updated: 4/3/2014 8:12 AM

Illinois man wins national track title

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  • Larry LaGesse, prepares to pole vault in the backyard training center he built at his rural Chebanse, Ill., home.

      Larry LaGesse, prepares to pole vault in the backyard training center he built at his rural Chebanse, Ill., home.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

KANKAKEE, -- You might say Larry LaGesse vaulted from the farm fields east of Chebanse into the national track and field spotlight.

The 66-year-old Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School product turned in a championship performance in his first National Masters Indoor Heptathlon, held in March at Carthage College in Wisconsin.

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But this determined athlete -- who has his own practice pole vaulting pit behind a corn crib -- didn't turn in his best vaulting performance in this outing. Instead, it was his strength in the shot put and his will to finish strong in the 1,000-meter run that helped make the difference.

"I'm really looking forward to the next one now," LaGesse said. "I didn't know how I'd do, so winning is just unbelievable. It feels better than any of my high school events.

"The final 1,000-meter run ... that was torture. I'm more of a sprinter, but I knew I had to stay close to the guy who was going to win that run. I finished in 4:37.96, and that was good enough to win it. I was shocked."

Maybe it feels better because he had to work so hard for these medals. He trained for years to get back into shape. Along the way, he overcame some injuries -- and the sense of dread a senior citizen might feel about falling 12 feet into the vaulting pit.

"I really have to thank God in Heaven, the people at Olivet (Nazarene University) who help me and let me practice there, and Yvonne Mills, who runs a fitness class at Kankakee Community College.

"And I have to mention the people at Accel Rehabilitation in Bourbonnais," he added. "I was fighting a pulled left quad muscle and (therapist) Jarek Mategewski showed me how to stretch it out at home and prevent more training delays."

LaGesse wanted to be in top shape for the two-day experience of pushing his body further than any practice session.

"I did a Masters meet in Indiana last year and tried to enter these seven events I would do at this one. But the timing didn't work and I was being called to four different events at once, so I had to drop out of some of them," he said. "This time it was set up to do them all, but it was still my first time and I had a lot to learn."

LaGesse said he made "a lot of little mistakes" in how he approached his jumps and other events, but he did take some worthwhile precautions.

"I made a lot of friends and got some good advice," he said. "And this was going to be my first hurdles event since grade school, so I asked if I could take some hurdles (out of the way) and practice.

"I was glad I did. With the 8 meter gaps, I had to adjust by alternating my lead foot. If I hadn't done that I would have been in trouble."

So, even without experience in hurdling or long jumping, LaGesse won three events and came in second in the other four. In the end, he collected 4,199 points, putting him into ninth place in the all-time point totals.

"I think I can maybe get to 4,600 next year," he said. "I'll conserve my energy better. And I know I can go a foot higher in the pole vault."

The only downside in his performance was the shame he felt after his vaulting effort. He cleared only 8 feet, 10 inches -- in what was the strongest event of his Boilermaker track career. While he's confident that he can top that one, it will be hard to surpass his shot put of 33 feet, 8 inches. It was 8 feet beyond the second-place finisher.

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