SUNRIVER — Ashton Eaton is not the only Central Oregon athlete to win a gold medal this summer in the decathlon.
Meet Denny Sullivan, who, when not designing and maintaining the popular trails at Pilot Butte State Park in Bend, competes in track and field.
All at 86 years old.
Last month in the Seattle suburb of Shoreline, Wash., Sullivan placed first in the decathlon at the USA Track & Field Masters Combined Events Championships. He was the only competitor in his men's 85-89 age division, which speaks volumes about the accomplishment of even finishing a decathlon — 10 events, staged over two consecutive days. (The decathlon includes, in order, the 100 meters, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meters, 110-meter hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw and 1,500 meters.)
The Masters Combined Events Championships are open to USATF members age 30 and older. Sullivan was the oldest competitor of them all at Shoreline, and after reflecting on the championships during an interview last week at his Sunriver home, he called the meet one of his more difficult events — he went into the competition with a leg injury and also had been battling vertigo.
The first day of the mid-July meet went well for Sullivan. He ran 20.43 seconds in the 100-meter dash, jumped 8 feet, 11⁄4 inches in the long jump, threw 25-91⁄2 in the shot put, cleared 3-6 1⁄2 in the high jump, and ran 1 minute, 58.36 seconds in the 400 meters.
The second day, however, proved to be disastrous. He misjudged a step in the 110-meter hurdles, took a fall and injured his right (throwing) arm, which made tossing the discus and javelin nearly impossible. Not to be denied, Sullivan used his left arm for the remaining events. After posting 42.13 seconds in the hurdles, he threw the discus 52-11 1⁄2, pole vaulted 3-11 1⁄4, threw the javelin 25-7 1⁄2, and ran the 1,500 in 10:37.86.
“The vertigo was still affecting me a little bit, and I went right through the hurdle,” he said, recounting his tumble. “I didn't jump it, I went right through it, and it knocked me down and I came up and was dizzy. I fell three times in the hurdles.
“I at least finished,” he added, “but in the wrong lane.”
The leg injury and vertigo had given Sullivan second thoughts about taking part in the national meet. But he had his sights set on a new world decathlon record for his age group.
“After you train for months and months and months, I thought, might as well go down and see how I do,” Sullivan said. “Then when I got there, there was no one (else) in my age group, and one of the reasons I went there was, five or six years ago, I broke the world's record.”
There would be no world record this time, though. He finished the two-day competition with 4,100 points — a respectable total, considering the health issues and the spill in the hurdles, yet disappointing. His hope had been to eclipse the existing age-group record of 6,671 points.
The Masters Combined Events Championships are sponsored each year by USATF, the same organization that oversees the U.S. track and field Olympic team (another link between Sullivan and Eaton, the decathlon gold medalist in the just-concluded London Olympic Games). USATF has been hosting masters meets since the late 1960s, and the first national championship meet was staged in 1968.
Masters competitions were not especially popular until the 1990s, according to George Matthews, USATF masters director for the Pacific Northwest region. Currently, the USATF includes 57 masters organizations, which are divided into seven regions.
Sullivan began competing in sports long before he was eligible for masters meets. He grew up in Bend and graduated in 1944 from Bend High School, where he was a member of the football and track teams.
After graduation, he volunteered for the U.S. Air Force during World War II, though he was still a cadet in boot camp when the war concluded. While he was training with the Air Force, he participated in several track and field competitions. That kept him in shape for a successful athletic career in both track and football at the University of Oregon.
Sullivan attended UO in Eugene from 1947 to 1952. His track coach there was none other than Bill Bowerman, who would become a coaching legend at Oregon and a co-founder of Nike.
While at Oregon, Sullivan met the woman who is now his wife, Patsy Sullivan, 81, who was attending hairdressing school at the time. As Patsy remembers it, he took her to a dance hosted by his fraternity. After the dance, Patsy called it quits on the relationship, and the two did not speak to each other for decades. They went their separate ways, and each got married and had children. But when they moved back to Bend years later — Denny as a retired educator and coach, Patsy to open a hair salon — they were both again single. They ran into each other one evening and rekindled their relationship, and not long thereafter the two were married.
Upon his graduation from the University of Oregon, Sullivan took a job as head track coach at Grant High School in Portland. He was head coach there from 1953 to 1963, and his teams won seven Portland Interscholastic League championships. In 1961, Sullivan's Grant boys were Class A-1 state champions. In addition to track, he coached the boys cross-country team, which won multiple state championships.
In 2009, Sullivan was inducted into the PIL Hall of Fame. And later this year, he is expected to be inducted into the Bend Senior High School Alumni Hall of Fame.
Track seems to run in Sullivan's bloodline. His son from his first marriage, Shannon Sullivan, was an All-America pole vaulter at Oregon State University in the early 1980s.
Denny Sullivan began competing in masters track and field events nearly 20 years ago, when he and Patsy stumbled upon a masters meet while traveling and she talked him into signing up for the event. Flash forward to 2012, and Denny Sullivan has competed in and won at countless masters track events, including masters world championships in Australia and Italy. As the USATF website confirms, he is the current world record holder in the decathlon for the 80-84 age group, with a mark of 6,904 points.
“One of the reasons I do it is the people I meet,” he said. “I meet such great people and you help each other out.”
Sullivan credits his success in masters track to Patsy. Since talking him into that first senior-level competition some 20 years ago, she has attended the majority of his meets, and Denny considers her his head coach and health monitor.
Patsy notes that her main job at the meets involves a lot of running.
“I'm his 'gofer,' ” she said. “I have to run and get him this and run and get him that. I make sure he stays hydrated because he's not good about drinking water, so I always make sure he's got plenty of liquids to drink — water, not beer.”
Denny's success can also be attributed to his complex, homemade training equipment, which includes a pole vaulting apparatus with bed mattresses as a landing pit and an indoor weight shed, which is electrically powered by a hand-built windmill.
Outside of competitions, Sullivan is technically retired. But for the past 18 years, he has been heading the trail development at Pilot Butte State Park. Along with maintaining the trails and lobbying for funding to improve the park, he founded the Pilot Butte Challenge, a 1-mile run/walk event that takes place annually on the butte's Nature Trail. He even competed once in the demanding uphill race.
Sullivan said he will continue helping to maintain the Pilot Butte trails, but he will be taking a break from competitions to let heal the injuries he sustained in his latest meet and to recover from his bout with vertigo. When he does return to the track, he said, his next major meet will be as an 87-year-old next summer at the 2013 World Masters Athletics Championships in Brazil.
He realizes that, as much as he loves the competitions, they are becoming more challenging and he can't go on forever.
“Something people don't realize is that the stopwatch and the tape measure don't lie,” he said, referring to his advancing years. “It tells you how you're dropping (off) as you grow older.”