Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Pole-vaulter's feats detailed in new documentary

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com

Growing up on a farm south of San Antonio, Adolph Hoffman used a bamboo pole to vault over irrigation ditches and barbed wire fences.

The 88-year-old World War II veteran is still flying.

With a slew of medals in his pocket and a reputation as the guy to beat on the track, the silver-haired cattle rancher is now launching into movies, with a starring role in "Age of Champions," a documentary about senior athletes chasing gold at the National Senior Games that screens this weekend at the Austin Film Festival.

"Most people my age are 6 foot underground instead of trying to pole vault 6 feet or better," the strapping, cowboy hat-wearing athlete says in the film.

Besides Hoffman, the documentary centers on a 100-year-old tennis player, a less-than-ladylike team of basketball-playing grandmothers from Louisiana, and two octogenarian brothers who learned to swim in the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial because they weren't allowed in white-only public pools. Hoffman's on-track arch rival, Earl Blassingame of McKinney, also makes an appearance.

"The message is that you're never too old to get out there and achieve your goals," says director Chris Rufo. "What we're trying to do is present older people in a positive, inspirational light."

And no, Hoffman's not worried about cracking any bones. He's not really worried about hurting himself at all, actually.

"He worries about breaking the pit," says Adolph's baby brother Glenn Hoffman, 78.

"I've got pretty solid bones," Hoffman says.

"He's fearless," says Kris Allison, Hoffman's coach at the Lone Star Pole Vaulting Center in New Braunfels.

A lifelong athlete, Hoffman started vaulting when he was 4 or 5. It's a family sport — three of his brothers vaulted, as did assorted cousins and nephews. In the late 1930s, he and his older brother were the top pole-vaulters in the state.

Back then, vaulting poles were made of rigid bamboo. His best vault was 12.5 feet, made when he was 23 years old.

Later, vaulters switched to steel or aluminum poles. Today's poles are made of Fiberglass, and they flex more, allowing athletes to jump even higher.

Technique has changed along with the poles, and it's been hard for Hoffman to adapt after so many decades. With Allison's help, though, he has developed a hybrid style of jumping, with his hands held farther apart on the pole. He's convinced once he perfects it, he can go even higher.

"I call it sling shotting," he says of the modern technique with flexible poles. "I want to get that technique — I think I can gain a foot or two."

In recent years, he's jumped 6 foot 9 inches — just under the outdoor record of 7 feet 4 inches for his age group. The indoor record is 8 feet, and Hoffman's coach says he can beat it.

"The crucial factor is his health," says Allison, who trains some of the region's top pole-vaulters. "If we can keep him uninjured, I don't have any doubt he can go 8 feet."

A good pole-vaulter, Allison says, needs the strength of a weight lifter, the speed of a sprinter and the agility of gymnast. "I think that's Adolph's strong suit — his strength."

Besides pole vaulting, Hoffman competes in high jump, long jump, triple jump, discus, javelin, hammer throw, shot put, 100 meters, 200 meters, weight throw and super weight throw. Over the years, he's collected more than 600 medals, most of them gold. He was inducted into the Texas Senior Games Hall of Fame in 2005.

He can bench press 300 pounds and still offers up a nearly bone-crushing handshake. At home in Somerset, population 1,550, where he was born and still lives, he works 70 or 80 head of cattle.

Hoffman pulled a calf muscle in June and is just now getting back into serious training. When he's not working with Allison, he lifts weights in a high school gym, does pushups and sprints up and down the hallway of his home.

His advice for staying fit? "Don't sit down and do nothing. Just keep on moving."

He's headed to a national pole vaulting competition in Reno, Nev., in January, where he hopes to break a record he's been nipping at for years. He'll move up an age group at the next Senior Games in 2013, where he hopes to set a whole new set of records. In the meantime, he'll play in the Men's Senior Baseball League World Series in Phoenix next week with the San Antonio Texans, a 65-and-older team.

"I'm just blessed to no end I can keep going," he says. "I don't know how many years I've got left. I've got to make the best of every minute."

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994

If you go: The documentary "Age of Champions" will screen at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday at the Austin Convention Center. For tickets go to www.ageofchampions.org . Rufo and Hoffman will lead a question and answer session after Saturday's session.