August 12, 2023 4 min read 4 Comments
Jerry and Christel Donley. photo credit: Rob Jerome.
By Ray Glier
Jerry Donley competed in the USATF Masters Outdoor Championships in 2022 with Parkinson’s Disease and a pacemaker. He was 92 and won the shot put. His wife, Christel, is 88 and competed in five events at The 2023 USATF Masters Outdoor Championships in Greensboro three weeks ago.
Track was never performative for either of them. They were never novelties in their own minds, like “Look at what us old people can do.” They were preoccupied by the sheer fun.
Jerry and Christel were the ones standing tall in the Masters track greenhouse as it grew and organized and rooted. It's why you should know about them, if you don't already.
The scaffolding of Masters track as we know it today was barely off the ground in 1974 when Jerry Donley, a 44-year old lawyer, first pole vaulted in an event. The structure of the sport grew a little higher in 1977 when 42-year old Christel Miller, originally from Leipzig, Germany, ran in a world meet…while on vacation in Sweden.
Christel was so fast at 42, three Americans asked her to join a relay team and they set a world record. That was 46 years ago.
Two cornerstones of Masters track were in place.
In 2002 Jerry and Christel became the Donleys and were married almost 22 years. More importantly they became the “First Couple of Masters Track & Field” and that is why you need to read about them…if you haven’t already.
Jerry died Feb. 9 at 93. Christel did not retreat from the sport figuring enough was enough with Jerry gone.
In Greensboro, she hurled herself into the long jump, the 100-meter dash, the shot put, triple jump, and high jump. She is 88, remember. Her high jump is ranked No. 1 in the world for W85-89.
If you are in Masters track and field, these two people are part of your roots. You inherited from them the energy and compassion to follow them and keep Masters athletics vibrant.
They are the reason you are here, along with many other volunteers.
Jerry had a pacemaker and a calcified Achilles and still showed up to jump and throw at meets. Christel is not the splendid athlete she was once was and she still was on the entry list 21 days ago for any event that had to do with speed.
Jerry is gone, but Christel is still here to admonish you if you dare think about quitting because you are crummy. It’s ok to think about quitting, she seemed to be saying, when you can only crawl, or it no longer excites you. But she insists you let the losing happen as well as the winning. Do not regard losing as personal failure, and reason to go to the sidelines.
“I have met people I competed with in the 1950s and 1960s,” said Christel, who was born in 1935. “They will not be proud any more. They just want to compete.”
Christel was in Greensboro simply to add more scaffolding to what she and Jerry added on almost 50 years ago. Back then sports for geezer jocks was just gaining traction and is now a full-blow thing from pickleball to badminton to swimming to cornhole…to long jumping.
Christel values presence over productivity, which is hard for athletes. Some compete at 65 and skip four years, and come back at 70 when the age cohort starts over so they can feel competitive. She wouldn’t think of it.
When we sat down and talked, Christel first said, “I didn’t have a good meet” as her competitiveness got the best of her. She quickly stopped and corrected herself and said, “What am I saying? I had a good meet because I was here.”
“I think that mindset is flourishing more now and I think it's great,” Christel said. “Young people are less skeptical and just competing. They're just all in.”
The Donleys were all in when they were married in 2002. They were involved in all of Masters track, from top to bottom, Mr. and Mrs. Prometheus full of planning and forethought...and action. They carried the brooms, stop watches, scorecards and rules. They went to every convention and every meeting. Computers were not personal and handy, and seedings for events were done by hand the night before an event.
And they went to every track meet they could because they were really, really good athletes.
Jerry, who was a track star at Beloit College, won 13 Masters world championships in the pole vault. He went an astounding 13 feet, 5 inches at 48 years old. He stayed all in until his 90s while battling Parkinson’s. Christel has been to every world masters outdoor meet since 1977. She was won 13 national championships in the heptathlon, and has set world records and national records.
What’s important to show the younger age class is that there are other pioneers, like Christel Donley, who are still all in.
Dot Sowerby and Betty Stroh showed up at 90 in Greensboro and set American records in the 400, Sowerby by almost nine seconds. They said it with their efforts, “You can't run us off."
“There were people who were doing 10 events, which included the Pentathlon,” Christel said. “We used to shake our heads at them and then we figured, why not, people wanted to see what they were good at. And they wanted to see what was most fun.”
Christel’s three children rally behind her. They will not drag her away.
“Jerry and I tried to make it better by listening and discussing,” said Christel, who was the director of The Pasadena Senior Games for years. “We tried to find venues and give information. We were lucky to then live in Colorado where people got outdoors and there were venues.”
I don’t even ask Christel how long she wants to compete. I know it is until she can’t walk any longer. She tells me anyway.
“90. I want to be 90 and do this.” She finishes her lunch and says she has to go stretch for one last event.
It’s 90 degrees. Christel Donley is 88. Now you see how the sport was built, one event at a time, one pioneer at a time.
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