Dexter Township Senior Athlete Faces Biggest Challenge Yet

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Howard practicing in his backyard where a typical session involves around 30 jumps. This is in addition to daily walks, sprints, and fun with his dog Cooper.

By Doug Marrin

Dexter Township resident Howard Booth has inspired many over the years by competing well into his senior years in track and field events worldwide. After experiencing a stroke this past fall, Howard’s story still motivates people to live healthily and press on despite life’s twists and turns.

“The stroke came out of the blue,” says Howard. “I was having a great day Friday (Nov. 27). My wife Lu and I walked two-and-a-half miles in the woods. I did some sprints with my pup, Cooper. That afternoon I had a two-hour pole vault workout in my backyard. Nothing was out of the ordinary. That night, about ten o’clock, I stood up and had a little dizziness.”

Early the next morning, Howard got out of bed very dizzy with a loss of coordination, having to lean on the wall to walk.

Howard is a retired Professor of Physiology at EMU. He has always been active and interested in how the body works, especially at its peak, competitive ability. Howard loves to compete, and his specialty is pole vaulting. Since retiring, his competitive highlights include:

  1. Winning world (WMA) championship three times in the last ten years
  1. Being selected” 2019 Male 75-79 Athlete of the Year” by USA Track and Field
  2. Being Inducted into the Michigan Senior Olympics Athletics Hall of Fame 2019
  3. Selected Michigan Adult Male Athlete of the Year by the Meijer State Games of Michigan and the State Games of America. 2017
  4. Being the Flag Bearer for Team USA at the Opening Ceremony for World Championship in Torun Poland. 2019 Indoor World Masters Athletics
  5. Winning 4 Gold medals in NCCWMA North American world regional Championships.
  6. Winning 13 National Championships (USATF and National Senior Olympics )
  7. Set 16 pole vault records at the state level (Mi, OH, IN, IL, MO, TX) and an additional 18 meet records. (Beach Vault, National Street Vault in DC, Toledo Street Vault, . . .)
  8. Earned over 140 total pole vault medals from world to local meets.
  9. Ten years as a volunteer Pole Vault Coach for Eastern Michigan University Men’s Track and Field, coaching the current record holder and five of the all-time top-ten vaulters in EMU’s history. He also contributed the pole vault part to EMU’s Decathlon & Heptathlon record holder and three of the top 15 EMU all-time top 15 multi-event athletes.
Howard holds the flag for Team USA at the 2019 Indoor World Masters Athletics Championships in Torun, Poland

Lu rushed him to St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea, where a myriad of tests was performed. The medical team concurred that leakage and impedance in the left vertebral artery had occurred several weeks earlier—an undetected asymptomatic stroke that led up to this one, a second stroke. Howard experienced facial asymmetry, muscle weakness, and blurred vision.

Howard had experienced a Transient Ischemic Attack or TIA. According to the Mayo Clinic, “a TIA usually lasts only a few minutes and doesn't cause permanent damage. Often called a ministroke, a transient ischemic attack may be a warning. About 1 in 3 people who has a transient ischemic attack will eventually have a stroke, with about half occurring within a year after the transient ischemic attack.”

Last January, before all COVID broke loose, Howard traveled to Key West, competing in the pole vault and landing a number one world ranking. Over the summer, Howard competed in four outdoor meets—masks worn, socially distanced, and sanitized areas after each use.

“I get my physicals regularly and didn't have any notable heart problems or anything like that,” says Howard, a little incredulous but accepting of what happened. “I have a little bit of high cholesterol, but for a person of my age, it’s not atypical. But of course, it’s not uncommon for strokes to come out of the blue, and this one did.”

By the evening of his first day at the hospital, Howard felt significantly better in every way. The doctors kept him through the next day as well before sending him back home. He felt substantially weaker but recovered well.

“I'm probably just now pretty much back to nearly full speed and full strength,” commented Howard in a phone call last week.

On top of the stroke, Howard is also experiencing arthritis and cervical vertebrae deterioration in his neck. Ever the competitor, he asked his doctors the impact both would have on his competitive activities.

Howard, Lu, and Cooper at their Dexter Township home

“The doctors were reasonably comfortable with my return to a competitive level of exercise,” explains Howard. “They both encouraged continued exercise and believed that was very likely the reason I recovered as well as I did.”

While the doctors cleared Howard to return to competitive exercise, there’s a catch—no more pole vaulting. While disappointed, he isn’t crushed by giving up the sport he has loved since his teens. Howard is a sandpit-half-full type of guy and looks to what he can still do.

“The doctors told me no physical activity that involved falling on my head, like pole vaulting,” chuckles Howard. “However, they told me I could still compete in other events like the relays, sprints, and hurdles—events I have done in the past but never specialized in.”

Whereas Howard has inspired many with his enthusiasm for health and fitness, not just talking a good game but competing in it, he now sets an example for moving forward after experiencing a significant event.

“I'm still a strong advocate and believer in getting your body out there working at the top level that is reasonable for your age and your other circumstances,” he says. “I’ve got some new circumstances now that I need to add into that formula.”

In a July 8 Facebook post, Howard may have prophetically described what was waiting for him down the road in addition to COVID social restrictions.

“We are all healthy and doing fine and hope you are too. It looks like this COVID-19 crisis may be a long journey but most of us will get through it. Let’s make the best use of this down-time and prepare for a positive but probably somewhat different future.”

And that’s Howard—always positive, adaptable, and encouraging.

Howard is leaving pole vaulting at the top of his game, not only his game but the top of anyone’s game. Howard is currently ranked World Champion for Men’s pole vault ages 75-79. He is ranked #1 in the world by World Masters Track Rankings for 2020 and 2021. Howard is also the current USATF Masters National Pole Vault Champion for men ages 75-79.

Knowing Howard, his indomitable spirit and enthusiasm not just for competition but for life, I expect we’ll be hearing more of him.

All photos courtesy of Howard Booth

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