by Geoff Larcom, Published December 16, 2013
YPSILANTI – Howard Booth has enjoyed many exciting whirlwind trips for athletic competition, but here’s one that soars above most.
Fly to Brazil. Win a gold medal in the pole vault, topping the world’s best in your age group. Compete and excel in several other events, including the 100-meter dash and a relay. Fly back in time to teach your Tuesday physiology lecture at Eastern Michigan University, having hardly missed a beat.
Booth’s gold medal in the pole vault at the World Masters Athletics Championship in Porto Alegre, Brazil, capped off a great season of masters track and field for the 70-year-old athlete.
Booth, who has taught biology at EMU for 46 years, is a familiar and impressive sight in Bowen Field House as he works out and helps coach EMU’s track and field athletes.
Before heading to Brazil, he had already set state pole vault records for his age group this past summer and earned five gold medals in the U.S. National Masters Track and Field Championships, winning the pole vault, long jump, 100-meter, 200-meter and 4x100 meter relay races.
But then came Booth’s Brazilian odyssey, an adrenalin rush of success and agonizing almosts.
After flying to Brazil, Booth wanted to test his sprinting at the world level the next day. But he strained a hamstring muscle about 70 meters into the 100-meter race and had to coast to the finish. His time was still good enough for 17th place out of about 40 entrants, but the leg strain also bumped him from the finals of the long jump competition later that day.
Fortunately, with some time to recover, Booth set his sights on his top event, the pole vault, in which he would compete with 14 other pole vaulters aged 70 to 75, with the top seeds from Hungary, Sweden, France, Germany, Estonia and Russia. Booth was seeded second, behind a vaulter from Hungary, who had cleared 10 feet, 2 inches, better than Booth’s best of 10 feet over the last six months.
Early in the morning, Booth headed out on the track, where he confronted a cold, swirling head wind, a meager selection of poles and a still sore leg. He took an abbreviated warmup and, to his relief, cleared the first bar comfortably. He passed on the next height and cleared the two after that, enough to give him the victory and the title of best in the world in his age group.
The final day of competition proved a bittersweet one. Booth was selected to run the second leg for the United States’ 70-75-year-old 4x100-meter relay team. Unfortunately, the team was disqualified for a zone infraction in the handoff. Still, the team could savor the knowledge that its time was more than 3 seconds ahead of other eight teams. Best in the world. But only they would know it.
“A matter of inches in a hand off, just that far from another gold medal – such is life,” Booth said of the near miss.
Fourteen hours in the air and 7,000 miles later, Booth was back at Eastern Michigan, his athletic and academic home base. Just in time to teach his Tuesday physiology lecture, where he would greet some of the 18,000 students he’s estimated to have taught at Eastern over the years.
“The trip to Brazil and winning the gold medal was the ultimate peak after a great season of track and field,” Booth says now.
The world masters games was just the latest exclamation point in a long and fun athletic career for Booth, who lives with his wife, Lu, in Dexter Township.
He grew up in Mio, a small rural town in northern Michigan. The small school gave Booth, who stood all of 5-6 and weighed 132 pounds, the chance to play football, basketball, and baseball along with his main love, track and field.
He came to Eastern Michigan in 1962 and was recruited from a physical education class to join the gymnastics team that freshman year. A year later, he was asked to pole vault for the track team.
Over four years in gymnastics, Booth served as team captain and co-captain, placing first three times on the still rings in the regional meet and earning an 11th place nationally. His peak in pole vaulting was a 3rd place in the conference meet.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and a masters at Eastern and later a Ph.D. at Michigan State while he continued teaching at EMU. All the while, he remained active in track and field.
And there’s more in store. Booth plans to compete in the next Outdoor World Masters Championships, to be held in Perth, Australia, in 2015.
“The world championships were a wonderful adventure, with such a rich blend of cultures,” he says. “It was a very friendly mix of nearly 5,000 of the finest masters athletes (ages 35 to 95+) in the world, and an equal number of family and friends traveling from over 60 countries.”
Quite an odyssey indeed. And one he can’t wait to repeat.