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Georgia farmer still winning pole vaulting medals at 77 years old
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Cook Holliday after he won the world masters championship in pole vault in Toronto, Canada, August 2017.

When Cook Holliday was in the first grade in Rochelle, Wilcox County, he got on the bus after school one day, looked out the window and for the first time saw somebody pole vaulting. It intrigued him so much that when he got home to the family farm, he got an ax from the woodpile, went down to the swamp, cut a bamboo pole, put up standards and started pole vaulting himself. “I knew nothing at all about it,” he said.

Holliday was just living up to his mother’s nickname for him, “Bouncer,” because he was always jumping around as a toddler.

Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

At age 77, he’s still at it on a masters competitive level. He would need a wheelbarrow to haul all the medals he’s won in high school, junior college, college and now among seniors. He’s in several sports halls of fame.

At Wilcox County High School, he was a four-sport athlete and set the state record for pole vault at 12 feet, 2 inches in 1960. He averaged 26 points per game in basketball, the state’s leading scorer for a while. He was the leading rusher in football and a star pitcher in baseball.

Holliday practiced pole vaulting at home, using a pit filled with sawdust.

After high school, he set junior college track records at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, where he also played basketball and is in the school’s hall of fame. Legendary track coach Spec Towns wanted him to come to the University of Georgia, and he had an offer at Florida, but ended up pole vaulting at the University of Wyoming, where track and field were more popular in the West.

There he set school records in indoor and outdoor pole vault

Holliday’s accomplishments landed him track and field coaching jobs at Winder-Barrow, Greater Atlanta Christian and Treutlen County high schools. His teams accumulated numerous state championships and individual championships. Pole vaulters he coached went on to compete in college.

“I got miserable after retiring,” he said. “I didn’t want to just sit on the couch and fill up with cholesterol.” 

He did some private tutoring, but being so competitive, he jumped into senior or masters track and field, focusing on pole vault. He puts himself through rigid conditioning, working out with weights the days he isn’t practicing the vault. He watches his weight. Despite being a cattle farmer on the side, he shies away from red meat in his diet to keep in shape for his track activities. “I only eat what flies or swims,” he says.

Holliday was national champion for ages 75-79 in four events: pole vault, high jump, triple jump and discus. He won a world championship in pole vault three years ago.

One of the highlights of his long career was during world competition in Toronto, Canada. When he was handed his Olympic-style uniform with USA emblems, he tucked it under his arms, and tears rolled down his cheeks. “It struck me like no other moment,” he said, “a South Georgia farm boy who had come all this way.”

Holliday’s vaults nowadays are in the 9-foot range, whereas in college just short of 16 feet. He’s 1 inch away from the national record of 9-1 for seniors.  He thinks he can do better, though fighting through a quadriceps injury at the moment.

His last name is spelled with two “l’s” as in “Doc” Holliday, the notorious Wild West gambler and gunslinger who was a native of Griffin. When Cook Holliday was introduced to spectators in Lynchburg, Virginia, after he had won four gold medals, he received polite applause, but when they announced he was kin to Doc Holliday, he received a standing ovation.

Cook’s mother knew they were related to Doc Holliday, but she told Cook they didn’t claim him “because he was a mean man.”

Cook Holliday attributes his drive and competitiveness to growing up on a farm where he learned his work ethic. Despite his track and field activities over the years, he still farms. He has a 79-acre cattle farm outside Winder and another farm in South Georgia. He’s the farms’ only employee, doing all the work, including cutting hay by himself.

He cautions others his age not to try to do too much too fast. Holliday suggests stretching and slow warm-ups before work-outs.

“I’m blessed at my age to be doing what I’m doing,” he said. He’s rewarded when people tell him he has inspired them.

He’s used to a raised-eyebrows reaction to his sport at his age. Going to practice at Athens Academy recently, he came upon a couple walking around the track. They looked at his gray hair and asked what he planned to do with that pole he was carrying. When he told them he was getting ready to pole vault, the woman exclaimed, “Oh, my God! and I’m getting ready to call 911.”

Watch for more local history in this column next Sunday.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville; 770-532-2326; johnny.peggy1956@gmail.com.

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