Monday, March 21, 2016

Tom Langenfeld: Minnesota Track & Field HOF 2016 Inductee

Tom Langenfeld has been high jumping since he was 12 years old.  "My father took me to the AAU Championships that were being held at Marquette University," he said.  At the meet a Jamaican sprinter, Herb McKenley,  who had run for the University of Illinois set a world record in the 400 meters.  "I was hooked," Langenfeld said.
Herb McKenley in full stride. Photo courtesy of the
University of Illinois

For most people the age of 12 was not that long ago, but Langenfeld is 80, and he's still jumping. He dabbled in the long jump and triple jump, but the high jump remained his first love.  "I never stopped (high) jumping," he said.  The competition, he adds, was "addicting." His success wasn't immediate, but it was consistent over the years and gained momentum as he aged.   In recognition of his achievements during his long career, Langenfeld was inducted into the Minnesota Track & Field Hall of Fame in February.

He's won many national and international titles, starting with a third place finish in the Wisconsin State High School Championships to being a world champion and world recordholder in his age group in Masters competition. He was the first 40 year old in Minnesota to clear 6 feet.  He won his first Masters high jump title in 1975.  He has won 37 US Masters titles, 23 outdoor and 14 indoors. He set a Masters age 45 World record in 1980.  His Age 40 indoor age-group record is now held by double Olympic bronze medalist Dwight Stones.

Langfeld as a sophomore during a practice session at Dana College in Blair, Nebraska.
When Tom started jumping the pits were more like a long jump pit of sand.  The part
of your body that took the most stress wasn't your legs, but your arms, he says, because
you had to cushion the fall with your arm and hands instead of  landing on your back
in a giant "foam pillow" that cushions the fall for today's  high jumpers .
Photo courtesy of Tom Langenfeld

As Tim Zbikowski said in introducing Tom at the HOF induction ceremonies: "while most men his age are worried they won’t be able to get back up if they fall to the ground, Tom is more focused on how high he can get off the ground before he falls down."  Despite the fact that his injuries these days take longer to heal, Tom is not ready to hang up his jumping shoes anytime soon.

Those jumping shoes are almost half as old as he is. "The jump shoe I’m using now will be 33 years old this summer (bought in 1983), essentially the same model as the shoe I’m wearing in the 1978 photo below, but held together precariously at this point by lots and lots of tape," he says.  "The question, of course, is what’s going to fall apart first, me or the shoe?"

"I still love to compete," Langenfeld says.  In his younger days, Langenfeld was usually able to jump several inches higher in competition than in practice.  Each competition Langenfeld wanted to place as high as he could, but also wanted to better his PR each time.  This way he had two goals going in and if he won, but didn't set a PR, he could be satisfied with the performance.  Same if he lost but set a PR.  While the lifetime PRs have not been feasible for some time, he can still adjust expectations to strive from year to year to set a calendar personal best and attempt to improve on that when he can.

He has seen the event change from a variety of techniques to get over the bar to today's high jumpers who are nearly all "floppers," the head and back first over the bar aerial gymnastics invented by Dick Fosbury in the 1960s.  The pits improved from sand to foam strips held together in a large bundle, to today's modern giant foam "pillows" that equally cushion the fall for jumpers who used the "straddle"method, like Langenfeld, or the floppers.
Winning jump(over 6 feet) at the 1978 US Masters Championships in Atlanta
Photo courtesy of Tom Langenfeld
Langenfeld experimented with the flop, but decided not to switch. He didn't like the idea of landing "on my head."  While his accomplishments have been more as a Master, Langenfeld says that his high school years were the best.  Everything was new, and he was successful.  Not wildly so as there were no high school state titles, or collegiate national championships or records achieved as he's done in the Masters, but the sport taught him basic values.

"I was from an era where the culture was that you got better by working hard.  The temptation to use "short cuts" or artificial means of performance enhancement was not as big an issue as it is today.  "It's still fun," says Langenfeld, about the training and competition. "I'm still trying to get it right."  It's not only kept him active.  He can run with his four year old granddaughter at kids' races, and the sport has taken him around the world and introduced him to like minded other veteran athletes.

He won his first World Masters title in Australia, traveled through Germany with fellow Minnesota Masters legend, Bill Andberg.  Langenfeld also "gives back" to the Athletics community by being the USATF Minnesota Masters Chairman for the past 25 years.

Like most Masters athletes, Langenfeld does not see aging as a negative thing, but rather a new opportunity to set more records.  He started off 2016 with age group records in his first two meets.  And he has a sense of humor.  When he was travelling to Australia for the World Masters championships in 2001 he saw  he flight attendant coming down the aisle eyeing the passengers.  She stopped when she saw Tom and asked: "Are you the gentleman who requested the wheelchair?"

Or when he was at a meet in Richfield he was approached by some high school kids who looked at his footwear and asked: "Are those orthopedic shoes?"  He laughs when he tells those stories.  When he started competing as a Master "there weren't too many of us."  The Minnesota AAU didn't have events split into age group competition for Masters.  When the demand for Masters categories increased a Masters US Championship was created.  The Masters athletes said to each other that those who won national titles were "the best guys who could afford to get to the meet."
Langenfeld posing for a photo taken by fellow Masters athlete, Thom
Weddle at the US Masters Outdoor Track Championships at Millikin
University in Illinois in 2004
Today with former Olympians, such as Stones, who still love to compete, love the sport, are mixed in with less well known athletes, such as Langenfeld, who can swap stories, push each other get the best out of themselves.  Demonstrating that sport is not just for the young or the genetically gifted.  They welcome all who want to take part, explore their potential, and have fun doing it.

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