March 04, 2023 4 min read 3 Comments
Larry Lagesse in his backyard in Kankakee with medals from the 2022 National Senior Games.
By Ray Glier
Look at this man, from the waist up. Larry Lagesse (la-jess) is 75 years old and he is trim and fit. He stomps into the woods to hunt, rides scaffolding he built himself to paint a barn, crafts his own lures and fishes for bass, and trims trees 25 feet off the ground while standing in the basket of a telescopic handler.
It looks like he could go on forever.
What you don’t see is Larry’s gnarly right knee. He can make it stop hurting, but only if he doesn’t jump over hurdles, or try and pole vault, or spin with the discus cupped in his right hand. Lagesse is a hybrid athlete, runner, jumper, thrower—a decathlete—and bone rubs bone in that knee after years of activity.
He has won 10 national championships, but now his eye is on the exit for Masters Track & Field.
It’s time to quit.
There will come a day—soon—where he will not actively resist Father Time. So he says.
“I have a good friend who said, ‘Larry, you got nothing to prove if you don’t want to commit to this',” Lagesse said. “He said he could see how this was beating me up. My daughter said the same thing a few days later that I have nothing to prove.
“At this age, you know, it's a major deal to go into the training. And you have to stay at it. I haven’t signed up for anything yet in the summer. I’m torn about what to do and I gotta be making my mind up pretty darn soon to get in these summer meets.”
I have written about athletes when the lights go out and crowds stop cheering. The stories have always been about younger athletes, particularly those who have competed in the Olympics and how they surrender themselves to sport. For some, their identity is not simply tied to their sport, it is strapped tight, almost like a strait-jacket.
It goes for Masters athletes, too, and I can think of several who will despair at having to stop competing. They will have no choice. Their bodies are fragile, they are pale shadows of their 60s selves, but they refuse to quit because it is their identity...and still fun.
Larry is not a holdout. I think. He can walk away. I think.
It is because of the extracurriculars—the fishing, hunting, his 82-tree property, and the building of robots for a local school—that he can walk away and not risk having the meat wagon roll on to the track and cart him off.
Sure enough, Lagesse skipped a track meet in Milwaukee when that local school in Kankakee invited him to help with the robot-building club. That was a first step.
“Since I've been a metal fabricator and a welder by trade my whole life, before I retired, I had an invite and I couldn't turn it down, it was working with young kids,” Lagesse said. “And I just enjoy it so much. They're really enlightened. Not all our youth are down the tubes. I work with a handful of them on a regular basis, Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
Also, Larry’s daughter is moving to Kankakee (Ill.) and he will help her get settled. That’s another reason to chuck the Chucks (Taylors).
Lagesse took up Masters track & field in 2014 at 67 years old and after a 46-year layoff. He had been a pole vaulter in high school, which meant using one of those mean metal poles to catapult over the bar (see picture at end of story).
Understand, when he returned to the sport, Lagesse was not some weekend warrior in Masters track & field. On his three-acre property in northeastern Illinois, he poured a long runway and installed a pole vault pit at one end and a long jump pit at the other. He poured a concrete circle—8-foot 2¼-inch—for spinning the discus out toward his cottonwood tree. Larry poured a 7-foot shot put ring with toe block out near the old pig barn. He created bands at arcs for 10 meters, 11 meters, 12 meters, and on, to measure his throws.
Oh, and there is a long jump standard on the backside of the pole vault pit, which he requisitioned from a local college.
He put it all to use and in 2018 and 2019, Larry was at the top of his game.
Lagesse was ranked No. 1 in the world (70-74) in the Heptathlon five years ago. In 2019, he was ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in the Decathlon, and 5th in the world. He was No. 2 in the U.S. in the Throws Pentathlon.
In the 2019 USATF National Masters Outdoor Championships, Larry won 1st in the pole vault and discus, 2nd in the javelin, and third in the shot put. Covid stopped his run, but he kept competing when play resumed and won medals at the 2022 National Senior Games.
It is hard to walk away after that kind of success. But that knee and its disintegrated cartilage is a game-changer.
“My knee is killing me,” Larry said. “It is the first thing that slams to the ground on the other side of the hurdle. And that rotation in the discus can light up that knee like a candle.”
Larry sighs on the other end of the phone.
“I'm not saying that I'll give up entirely,” he cautions near the end of an hour-long interview.
It will be risky to come back, especially on a bum knee. How much can Larry reprise of 20019 with a knee that begs for him to just walk, or maybe cast a line into the water?
Should he even try to come back?
We'll see, but it is a reminder that Geezer Jocks are not immune to the psychological strain of athlete identity foreclosure.
Larry clears the bar in high school with a metal pole.
Geezer Jock is free. I want to drop all my other paid work and make this newsletter 100 percent what I do. Please consider supporting me. I wrote Sports for The New York Times, USA TODAY, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and others, from 1992 to 2020. I've been writing almost 50 years. As always, "If you're not buying what I'm selling, it's my fault not yours."
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