BURLINGTON, Vt. — All eyes are on Flo Filion Meiler when she arrives at the University of Vermont track at 8 a.m. sharp.
The world’s oldest active women’s pole vaulter is wheeling a Sears red wagon loaded with gear and toting an 11-foot-long fiberglass pole. Wearing a USA jacket, she greets the student-athletes with a big smile before starting warmups. They continue to sneak peeks at her.
“They think she’s the bomb,” says Emmaline Berg, the UVM assistant track coach and Meiler’s coach. “I think her secret, honestly, is just her sheer determination and will.”
Add to that perseverance and just looking good, says Meiler, an 85-year-old great-grandmother who has won more than 750 track and field awards and is in the USA Track and Field Masters Hall of Fame.
“The secret is getting up at the same time every day and getting my makeup on and then doing stretching for about 15-20 minutes,” she says. “Then I get to the track and stretch again.”
Meiler didn’t start competing in track and field until she was 60 years old. She and her husband were qualifying for the Vermont Senior Games in mixed doubles tennis when a friend begged her to enter the long jump competition.
“She said, ‘We’re desperate for track people, and you’d be good at it,’ ” says Meiler. “I fell in love with it immediately.”
Five years later, she watched some female pole vaulters struggling with gravity at a meet. She knew she could outvault them.
“I said, ‘Holy cow, that looks like fun. I’ve got to try that.”
She watched a pole vaulting video, and soon went airborne, eventually setting world records for her age. Now she trains at least five days a week and competes in up to 11 different events both nationally and internationally.
Besides motivating student-athletes, Meiler also speaks at senior centers, where she tells people to get up off the couch.
“It’s never too late to take up a new sport,” she says. “Use it or lose it.”
She’s also pretty tough. Once when she was practicing for the California Senior Olympics, she gashed her leg on a steeplechase wooden hurdle. Doctors gave her 12 stitches and urged her to let it heal.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m going [to California]. Do or die.”
In March, she won five gold medals (pole vault, pentathlon, high jump, hurdles, and 4x200-meter relay) at the World Masters Athletics Indoor Championships in Torun, Poland. There, her relay team broke the age-division world record by more than a minute.
In June at the National Senior Games in New Mexico, she vaulted a world-record 5 feet 1 inch in the women’s 85-year-old division.
“She didn’t just clear a bar. She cleared a bar much higher than some of her younger competitors,’’ said Jeff Brower of the USATF records committee. “Her pole vault performance in Albuquerque could arguably be the women’s performance of the year for Masters Track & Field.”
Meiler grew up as a farm girl in Champlain, N.Y., drinking raw milk, tossing around bales of hay, shoveling cow manure, and working heavy equipment. She also was a cheerleader and played basketball.
She later worked for a nutritional supplements company and married an Air Force pilot who later became a financial analyst. The couple bought a house on Lake Champlain in Shelburne and entered water skiing competitions together.
The farm work and the water skiing helped her excel in track and field.
“You’re building up your arms in your upper body which is excellent for pole vaulting,” says Meiler.
Their home is filled with medals and trophies and the 17 scrapbooks her husband has kept for her.
But they also persevered through personal tragedy. The couple adopted three children after the deaths of two premature babies and a 3-year-old.
When Meiler is on her pole vaulting approach, she blocks everything else out.
“I just focus on getting up there, really,” she says. “I am determined that I’m going to get up there.”
Meiler says her diet is not special. She drinks a nutritional supplement shake in the morning and takes vitamins, but she doesn’t obsess over meals.
“Oh, I eat all kinds of junk, but I burn it really quick,” she says.
Her go-to treat is chocolate-covered almonds. She also enjoys a cocktail in the evening.
When Meiler travels to faraway tournaments, there is always a Snoopy stationery note from her husband tucked into her luggage
“Wishing you lots of good results and fun, Love Gene, you rock!” he writes.
That’s pretty sweet stuff from a former B-52 bomber pilot who flew an aborted bombing mission to the USSR during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. He still won’t divulge the target.
But he will reveal his wife’s secret to success.
“She’s a freak, really, when you think about it,” he says. “She’s one of the few people I know that enjoys practice. She doesn’t look at it like work, like a chore, she enjoys it. I don’t know anybody like that.”
She also had a very happy 85th birthday on June 7.
“How many people you know are glad to be 85?” says Gene. “At 85, she’s at the lower end of that [85-90] age bracket. Now she can beat everybody.”
She plans on doing this as long as she can, even until she’s 100.
“Why not?” she says.
She loves to win, especially against the younger athletes in pole vaulting.
“When I’m competing with gals a lot younger than I, it makes me feel so good when I’m going up higher than these young chickens,” she says, giggling like a teenager.
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.