Flo Meiler, possibly the only 80-year-old great-grandmother who pole vaults, thrives on doing the unexpected.
In fact, Meiler — who owns 15 world age-division records in track and field — has another extraordinary venture in mind for the USA National Masters Track and Field Championships today through Sunday at Wake Forest.
Meiler is entered in 14 events. She will compete in as many as reasonably possible, depending on the heat and humidity and how she feels.
“I’m used to the good ol’ Vermont 70 degrees, but I’ll try,” Meiler said.
She has a built-in fan club pulling for her, from friends in her tiny hometown of Shelburne, Vt., to three children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren scattered around the globe.
The pole vault is among her favorite events, and she set a world record for her age division on June 7, her birthday, by clearing 6 feet. It’s not exactly Olympics territory, but astounding for her age and considering she completed a grueling steeplechase the same day — and the fact the previous record was a paltry 4 feet, 7 inches.
Meiler once vaulted 6-8 in her 70s.
“When I was much younger,” she said.
She also competes in high and low hurdles, 100- and 200-meter sprints, high jump, long jump, triple jump, shot put, discus, hammer throw, weight throw, 2,000-meter steeplechase and pentathlon.
There aren’t a large number of competitors in her age division in most of the events, but the lure of personal accomplishment is motivation enough. It’s another stage, after years of devoting time to volunteer work for the American Heart Association and raising a family.
“I just love keeping in shape,” Meiler said. “A lot of people ask me how I keep doing this, and I say, ‘Well, it’s not that easy but you just keep going.’ It’s a wonderful feeling when people come up to you and tell you what an inspiration I am to them to get off the couch and be active.”
Bill Nedde, a retired track-and-field coach at the University of Vermont who has coached Meiler for 15 years, described her as remarkable.
“She’s phenomenal, for sure,” Nedde said. “Nobody that meets her is willing to admit or agree that she’s 80 years old. She continues to amaze me every time we work out. She has incredible strength and stamina.”
Meiler, a self-described “farm girl,” tossed her share of hay bales as a youngster after her parents moved from Canada to upstate New York, and she grew up playing half-court basketball — about the only sport available to her at the time.
She moved on to dance lessons and competitive water-skiing, and later downhill snow skiing and tennis. She was playing doubles with Gene, her husband of 54 years who is a former Air Force pilot and stockbroker, in the Vermont Senior Games when she was approached by friend and fellow competitor Barbara Jordan about the possibility of trying track and field at the Masters level.
“She said, ‘We’re desperate for track athletes; why don’t you come and try the long jump when you’re finished with tennis?’” Meiler said.
Meiler was intrigued, and became a track-and-field rookie at age 60.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” said Meiler, who says she now has more trophies and medals than she knows what to do with. She became hooked after finishing fourth among 25 women in her first long-jump competition.
Meiler didn’t start pole vaulting until she was 65.
She now trains diligently with Jordan, and is coached by Greg Wisser, a track coach at Vermont, as well as Nedde, a former Marine. “He doesn’t take any pity on us; he snaps the whip,” Meiler said.
Her regimen includes three days a week of track-and-field practice, and two days of weight training. She has the biceps to show for it. There have been a few hamstring injuries along the way, and 12 stitches to a knee from a steeplechase mishap, but she remains undeterred.
“I couldn’t imagine not doing this,” Meiler said. “I love it. It’s a wonderful feeling.”