October 15, 2022 5 min read 3 Comments
Cook Holliday, 80, shows off his gold medals from Georgia Golden Olympics. None of the medals, however, are from the sport he cherishes most: the pole vault. They didn't offer it as a sport in 2022.
By Ray Glier
Cook Holliday grew up on a farm in south Georgia so it is easy to see where the man’s intensity comes from. There were summer days, nearly all of them, in fact, that started at sunup and didn’t finish until sundown, even for a 7-year old.
“Picked cotton at 7,” Cook said.
There was constant drumbeat of manual labor across those 450 acres, which were teeming with peanuts, watermelon, and cotton, as well as cattle and hogs.
There was also a fear that drove daily life on that south Georgia farm, which had planted its first seed in 1888.
“If you didn’t make it in the dirt,” says Cook, “you didn’t make it.”
It sounded like a life where you kept your head down and you worked and you met the challenge as best you could.
But there was room for a Hail Mary, or two, something out of the ordinary for a farm kid, something to jerk his head up from the bush he was snatching cotton from, something crazy.
Cook caught a Hail Mary.
Out the school bus window one afternoon in Rochelle, Ga., in 1949, Cook, 7, saw a teenager pole vaulting, though Holliday didn’t know exactly that it was called pole vaulting. The boy was in a field by the side of the road planting a metal pole into a hole and catapulting himself over a cross bar.
What is that saying?, “Your spark can become a flame and change everything.”
Cook was mesmerized, as if Martians had landed among the cotton bolls. He jumped off the bus when he got home and went straight for the shed. He got the hole diggers. He grabbed the axe and made some standards to hold a wooden cross bar. There was a long, smooth bamboo pole near the wood pile. Cook was, what 50 pounds? He would run and plant that pole into the hole he dug and it would bend just enough to spring an elfin kid in the air.
Driving a tractor at 8 years old would be fun, but this was more fun, whatever it was.
“I didn’t even know it was called pole vaulting,” Holliday said.
Cook did not sample pole vaulting, and just do it in the spring season, and move onto another sport. He dove into it year round, checked out a book in the library on pole vaulting, and made it his thing of things in athletics. Cook earned 15 letters at Wilcox Central H.S., which had never been done before, but pole vaulting gave him more joy than toting the football, shooting the basketball, and hitting a baseball.
By the time he was 18, Cook was not only the high school state champion in the pole vault, he set a state record at 12 feet, 2 inches that stood nine years.
“It changed my life,” Holliday said. There was now opportunity outside the farm because colleges were willing to give him scholarship money and set him on a path.
He went to Abraham Baldwin junior college and ranked first nationally at 13 feet, 11 inches with a metal pole. Holliday got a scholarship to the University of Wyoming in track & field. He set a school record there and qualified for the NCAA Track & Field national meet.
Holliday went on to coach high school track & field in Georgia and his teams won six state titles. He couldn't coach speed, so he centered his coaching around field events where technique and practice would give him an edge.
Now 80 years old, Cook can slide the pole for the vault through the trunk of his Toyota to the front windshield with no room to spare and go off to track meets with his wife, Sandra. He still has the exuberance of a 7-year old and is delighted in the medals he receives, every last one of them.
“I just had a hunger,” Cook said. “That came from the farm, from my dad. I still have it.”
He ranks fourth in the world (80-84).
In the same national meet at Kentucky, he got silver medals in the shot put and javelin and a bronze in the triple jump.
Holliday is supremely disappointed the Georgia Golden Olympics do not offer the pole vault for people 80 years old, but he shows up anyway for other events.
In September, Cook entered seven events at the Georgia Golden Olympics, five in track and two in basketball (free throw shooting and 3-point shooting). He won them all, of course.
“I'm doing this for health reasons and to be active,” Holliday said. “And it’s in my blood. You have to understand that back in the 60s, if you got a scholarship that was a pretty big deal because, you know, you came up on the farm, so you took advantage of these opportunities.”
Lois Holliday, his mother, nicknamed Cook “Bouncer” because he could really jump. You needed bounce for the pole vault, plus speed, and balance. Holliday said it helped that he could walk on his hands.
What you really need, though, is nerve.
“It’s high-risk,” Holliday said. “It’s dangerous. I came off a farm so I had a chip on my shoulder, a country boy, so I didn’t mind the risk.”
What’s striking is that Holliday could have played college basketball. He was a terrific football player, too. But he chose to direct his skill to track & field and the pole vault, a sport where you never win, you always lose. You might jump 13-1 to win a meet, but you always try to go higher before the meet ends. Three chances and you always fail at the next height or, if you cleared it, the height after that would get you.
“It was that challenge,” Cook said. "It is the most complicated thing you can do in athletics, even more complicated and challenging than hitting a 97-miles per hour fastball.
“That’s why I liked it most.”
And what about that other thing in his blood, the farming? Cook has a farm in Winder, Ga., and works on that farm, mostly with cattle. The pole vault carried him away, but no so far that he didn't know where he came from.
Copyright © 2022 Ray Glier
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That's Cook pole vaulting at 80.
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