February 11, 2023 5 min read 10 Comments
Photo: Colin Lynch, National Masters News.
By Ray Glier
Roger Parnell, 73, showed up for an exam of his injured right hip and he wasn’t about to let the orthopedist think Roger was a mass-produced "older guy." Roger would define the encounter, and not let the doc meddle with his ambition. Parnell would stop in its tracks any breezy platitudes of “that’s nice for your age.”
Parnell, ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in the long jump (M70), arrived for the appointment last Monday with the all the connotations that he be taken seriously. He wore crisp workout clothes, his athletic shoes were tied tight, and he had an attitude.
“I made sure I told them my story and what I expected to keep doing,” Parnell said. “I wasn’t leaving anything to chance and allow them to say ‘we want to get you back to functionality’ just because I was older.
“My level of functionality is very different from somebody’s else’s level of functionality.”
Parnell's story is that he was ranked No. 1 in the world in the long jump in 2019 and 2021 and No. 1 in the 80 meter hurdles in 2019 (www.mastersrankings.com).This ego-less man had to stick out his chest in the exam room and declare himself because, you know, Geezer Jocks do not normally get on the box of Wheaties or ESPN.
Parnell had good reason to try and impress. His stellar Masters career is on a precipice.
He has a torn labrum in the hip and a bone spur is scraping across that labrum. The MRI will reveal the extent of the damage and his prospects for staying world-class.
Parnell said his times in the 80m hurdles and sprints and distances in the long jump were off in 2022, even though he was winning. He skipped the USA Track & Field Masters Outdoors Championships because he knew something was off.
“Now I have to see if I need surgery for it,” Roger said. The MRI results will be back in the coming week.
Asked if he was nervous about his future in Masters track, Parnell didn’t hesitate before answering, “Yes.”
“Hopefully, I will be able to come back from this hip labrum tear and look the same way when I hit 75. That's what my goal is. I haven't given up on that.”
Parnell’s story should resonate. Most docs are well-intentioned, but we have to be clear what our goals are, not theirs. We shouldn’t try and walk backward in time, but we should be masters of our game going forward.
Roger is one of those inveterate athletes, an incurable student of the game. He has combined a journeyman’s work ethic with freakish natural ability. When you find athletes that do that you get LeBron James of the Lakers, tennis great Roger Federer, or 49ers runningback Christian McCaffrey. They leave nothing on the table, the cliché for getting after it daily.
Roger Parnell leaves nothing on the table, except sweat.
He was freaky fast as a 5-year old when he beat his older brother down the block. He was fast in college at Chico State (Calif.). He is fast now and he combines it with a professorial approach to the sport.
“I love track and field, I'm a student of the sport,” said Parnell, who is self-coached. “I love the idea of working on technique. So when I go to the track, it's not just for a workout, it's to concentrate on something specific. It's small things I go crazy about. I work on those small things to try to make them better.
“Studying the events has elevated me to a higher level.”
Parnell is not an eccentric. He does not have a secret sauce that drives him down the track, if you don’t consider his devotion eccentric.
Roger came back to track & field in his 40s and realized he still had some juice. He has adopted a conservative approach, which includes never working out on the track on back-to-back days and an active warm-up of 20-30 minutes.
“Meticulous. Perhaps that word fits what I do during my time working on technique,” Roger said. “I try very hard to focus on mastering one specific element of whichever event I'm working on that day.”
He gave some examples:
Long Jump: Work on quickness of last 3 strides of the approach.
Hurdles: Work on speed/aggressiveness to first hurdle.
Sprints: Maintaining drive phase for 25 meters coming out of the blocks.
“There are plenty of elements to work on so it never gets boring,” Roger said.
He’s practical, too. Parnell identifies as a long jumper, but in his late 40s he made sure he added the sprints and hurdles so he didn’t over-use the body parts required for the long jump.
Roger’s culture as a runner will not let him coast as he gets older. He knows he’s not indestructible, but Roger knows how to push Roger’s buttons.
“I haven’t maximized it yet,” Roger said when asked if he has gotten everything out of his ability. If he admits he has hit a ceiling, he said, “that takes away the opportunity to do better.”
It’s why he leans heavily on the metrics of Age Graded Performance. Was he relatively as fast at 71 as he was at 70 given that we are supposed to slow down as we get older?
“You can always refer back to an age-graded performance and say, ‘I got better this year’ because my age graded performance is better than it was last year,” Parnell said. “That information is terribly valuable to me. That's what I hang my hat on.”
Roger refuses to hang his hat on other competitors. He lost a race recently and the man that won the race was joyous that he beat Parnell.
Roger celebrated with the man. He might have the ambition of a 20-year old, but Parnell’s ego rides in the backseat, not shotgun. Parnell’s Ego keeps its mouth shut at parties. It is silent at the finish line and it doesn’t speak when spoken to, unless Roger asks it for reassurance that he is still pretty decent at this track thing, like in the doctor's office.
Now comes a fiercer competitor: injury and the rehab. There are no guarantees, but it’s good to bet on Roger Parnell, if you are placing bets. He knows comebacks.
In 2006, he went over a hurdle in the national championships in Charlotte and broke his left foot in three places. That was a laborious process to return because Roger did not settle for pins and screws. He wanted rods so he could function at a high level.
In 2014, while No. 1 in the world in the long jump (M65), a tree crashed through the roof of his house. While pulling a tarp in place to cover a hole, Parnell fell off the roof. The broken arm was nothing compared to the most serious of foot injuries, Lisfranc.
Coming back from Lisfranc is 18 months of watching paint dry. You can’t hurry it and you have to sit still. In the old days the Lisfranc injury didn’t require patience because they just cut the foot off.
He missed the 2015 season and most of 2016, but Roger rallied in 2017 to claim No. 1 in the U.S. in the long jump (M65) while near the top of the age cohort.
Now he has to rally again. Maybe that’s the signpost we hang on Parnell this coming week. Rally Roger. The sport needs you.
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