June 11, 2022 6 min read 5 Comments
Photo: courtesy Rob Jerome
By Ray Glier
You don’t expect liftoff on a career at 71, much less liftoff in a career in track and field at 71. But there is an explanation for Roger Vergin's late-life liftoff that is as rational as one of his class lectures on business administration.
Vergin (pronounced VER-jean) took up weightlifting at 53, managed his body, applied some academic rigor to the study of track and field, and stayed enthused. It wasn't as complicated as it was intense and steady.
Here is more of The How of Roger Vergin.
Vergin, now 84, was lifting weights three or four times a week for 90 minutes a day. He said he became stronger at 70 than he was at 20, measured by the amount of pushups he could do. Roger said he could do just 15 pushups when he was 20, but at 70, he had to be stopped at 60 pushups on a fitness test, or he would have blown past 75 up downs.
Strength is only part of the explanation of how a man who has competed in 220 national and international events in 13 years has finished out of the medals just 19 times.
Since 2010, Vergin has won 99 Gold, 65 Silver, and 37 Bronze medals in those 220 national and international meets. The gold medals were won in 17 different events and four different relay races.
If you count up all his medals, which includes local and state meets, it's over 900 medals, half them gold.
Vergin has been ranked No. 1 in the U.S. 64 times and No. 1 in the world 11 times. The No. 1 rankings were in 10 different events.
Roger has competed in 10 USA Track & Field Masters decathlons and has won seven gold medals. The last two USATF decathlons he did not have competition, but at least he’s out there dueling Father Time. We're not.
He has a raised perch in Masters track & field and Vergin is enjoying the view after this landslide of medals. He's not settling. He wants to keep running and jumping and throwing, using his academic mind as a sharpener of his body. He moved to The Villages in central Florida three years ago so he could have access to training facilities. That's the level of commitment it takes to be like Roger.
Vergin was lean, wiry, and bouncing along in bare feet as I followed him back to the starting line tent at the Senior Games track venue. He was near the end of his four-day march through the event calendar and he seemed eager and ready for more.
“I can't even beat a good eight-year old in a race, but I still can run fast with people in my age group, and I can jump, and it’s all very satisfying to continue to be able to do that,” Vergin said. “The fun is being with this community. It's really a lot of fun to train and also very satisfying to see the reaction I get from people.”
The reaction from people, of course, is "How?"
Vergin wasn’t the fastest in Ft. Lauderdale in M85-89. Robert Whilden and Barney Brathwaite forced him to accept a bronze in the 100 meter dash. Whilden beat him to the gold in the 50, but overall there was no better athlete in the 85-89 class, or even 80 and above.
There was no Decathlon to settle the issue, but Vergin had golds in the long jump, high jump, triple jump, and pole vault to go with his medals in the sprints.
“You know,” he said, “Elmo (Shropshire) was telling me I was one of the smarter runners out there. He said I knew how to conserve my energy in the heat races doing so many events.”
He smiled. It’s part of the stew. Intellect polishes Vergin's athleticism.
Vergin was valedictorian of his high school class in Brainerd, Minnesota in 1955, as well as President of his class. He went to college and got an MBA and Ph.d. He taught at Cal-Berkeley and Penn State, among other stops.
It figures that Vergin studies track and field training guides to learn technique. After all, his professional career was studying and teaching Business Administration so he is familiar with the focus required for research. Vergin was so dialed into entrepreneurship that legendary actor Marlon Brando hired him for a venture.
So, yeah, the stew we all want to cook up for ourselves is athleticism, curiosity, training, and heapings of mental software.
And it helps to have a foundation, too. Roger Vergin’s mother, Hilda, graduated from high school at 15 and was a full-fledged professional teacher at 16. She taught him to lean into what he was trying to accomplish.
It helps explain the how.
There was a time when Vergin didn’t have this Masters halo over his head. In his 30s and 40s and 50s he was running 5ks and 10ks and did two marathons. He never won, but Vergin wasn’t melancholy about it and didn’t gravitate to golf, or the couch. He was in it for the exercise and that was enough.
Then a switch flipped. While teaching at Penn State, Vergin started lifting weights in his mid-50s. He got stronger and stronger with 90-minute workouts three or four times a week.
“As time went on I continued to get stronger and stronger every year over the next 15 years,” he said.
Funny, don’t they tell us on TV we will get weaker and weaker?
When he saw a flyer tacked to a post advertising “Senior Games” Vergin’s curiosity poked him. Why not?
He didn’t just dive into events, though. Vergin studied training guides. After all, he was a teacher. Of the 52 weeks in a year, Vergin figures there were many years he was in the library stacks 44 weeks doing research.
Thus, Vergin began a track and field career at 71! That was in 2008.
When he first tried the hurdles, this man who now jumps for fun, couldn’t muster the courage to take his 71-year old self over the rack. He said he ran up to it eight times on its lowest setting and always stopped. Then he unified athletics, and academics and studied technique in a book. The know-how gave him the nerve and he hurdled the hurdle.
To learn the pole vault, Vergin signed up for a summer camp. It was him, and a teacher who had been thrust into the role of track and field coach, and 93 teenagers taking instruction. Pops got through it.
A turning point for Vergin in Masters track was when he quite accidentally bumped into a man a physical mirror of himself. Roger Dean of Seattle not only had the same first name and was 5-foot-8, just like Vergin, but he weighed 135 pounds, just like Vergin.
Dean was at a local track throwing the discus and was going to enter a meet in the decathlon. Vergin stood and watched. He had been lifting weights for 15 years. His strength was above average for someone his age. Pretty soon he and Dean started training together.
At a local meet, an official saw Vergin long jump. She saw him sprint. He had been weight training and had good muscle mass.
“You should do the decathlon,” she said to him.
Thus was born one of the top decathletes in Masters track history.
It’s all been an adventure for Vergin, but life off the track has been an adventure, too. When he was 26 with three kids and a modest salary as a professor in business administration, Vergin put his studies to work and became a construction general manager. Among his building projects were a 28-unit apartment complex and two houses on exclusive Bainbridge Island in Seattle, which sold for $4.1 million and $3.5 million, respectively.
Then there was the adventure with Brando, the Oscar-winning actor. Mr. Mumbles wanted to create a resort out of an island he owned near Tahiti. He hired Vergin to sort out the details and get the business up and running. It was a mostly futile attempt with the remoteness of the place and Brando’s temperament, but at least a book came out of it: Brando, With His Guard Down, by Roger Vergin.
There is some debt coming due for all the weightlifting, running, jumping and movement. Vergin is experiencing severe back pain, which could keep him out of the USATF Masters meet in Lexington, Ky., July 28-31.
He is not taking it lying down, sort of. Vergin bought an inversion table to help straighten out the L4 and L5 in his back and he is using it four times a day.
There is some anxiety because the record he wants is in peril because of the pain. The M85 decathlon will go off in St. Louis, August 27-28, at the USATF Combined meet. He has 99 gold medals, but the gold he covets is No. 100 in that decathlon.
Which gets us back to Hilda, his brilliant mom. His dad, he said, always talked about reasons why something would fail. Mom was the opposite.
“That's something I picked up very early on life, some of it from my mother,” he said. “I've always been fairly driven person to accomplish things.”
It will be a challenge for him to get the 100th gold medal in St. Louis. If he makes it there through the back pain, you won't have to ask how.
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