Jumping for Joy
Chuck Milliman, 85, Phil Milliman, 66, Sequim, Washington
As the saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In Washington state, the Milliman family tree has produced a bushel of positive minded and active people, including Chuck and Phil, father and son gold medalists in National Senior Games pole vaulting.
Chuck Milliman, a retired minister, did not start running seriously until his 40s, but has completed 66 marathons and a variety of track and field competitions. Chuck has also stayed active through outdoor recreation. He and wife Shirley have encouraged their entire family, and countless others, to join in on hikes, climbing, biking, races and anything else that gets the muscles moving.
Phil Milliman discovered the thrill of pole vaulting on family beach trips where he used pieces of driftwood to jump over a string held up by his siblings. This led to a high school vaulting career, but not having access to poles and pits sidelined him after graduation until a brother-in-law upstate organized all-age games. Phil’s passion was reignited at 35, and he’s been burning up runways ever since. Chuck also joined in doing running and field events, including pole vault.
The two agreed to enter the Washington State Senior Games in 2003, and when the National Senior Games came to California in 2009, the pair decided to go to Palo Alto. Chuck surprised himself with a gold medal in his first national appearance, and Phil matched the feat in his age group in Houston in 2011. Then, at the 2017 National Senior Games presented by Humana in Birmingham, the duo achieved the goal of both winning a gold medal in the same Games. Their performances earned both top-five all-time NSGA marks.
As our lively three-way conversation below details, winning medals is not a goal but a result for the Millimans. Regular training and practice is based on Phil’s study of the sport, and they have a backyard pit to hone their skills. But both quickly point out that the real goal is to achieve good health and longevity. It’s also clear that both are motivated by the sheer joy of defying gravity and being with others in the sport.
Above all, Chuck and Phil want to inspire others to find their own way to stay active. They still organize family and church group outings, and Phil is a volunteer pole vaulting coach at the local high school. Chuck’s devotion to help people is only exceeded by the spirit of fierce competition he instilled in the family. Phil admits that when Chuck takes on a challenge, he wants to do it too and not get one-upped. This spirit is also demonstrated by the high activity level of three generations of the family.
Chuck, whose good health made a speed bump out of a dual heart bypass in 2001, enjoys community work and running for charities, including back-to-back marathons to log 78.6 miles on his 78th birthday for the Boys & Girls Clubs. Last year, he ran 85 miles over two days for his 85th birthday for the Sequim Food Bank. Phil will have to age up to match those feats but does his share, and he has found a new sport passion in pickleball.
You may not want to try pole vaulting, but witnessing Chuck and Phil Milliman’s enthusiasm and vigor should make you want to find an activity to pursue your own Personal Best!
Let’s “jump” right in by asking this: Why did you both fall in love with pole vaulting?
Pole vaulting to me is the ideal sport. It’s because everybody is working as hard as they can to help the person beside them to be the best athlete you can be. I’ve never seen a more selfless sport. It also takes everything you’ve got to do it. There’s a national conference every year, because it’s so complex there’s a need to share physics and skill information, plus the psychological aspect. All sorts of things come with it.
Well, the fear of falling is primal.
We tell kids you have to overcome every survival instinct you’ve got to pole vault. There’s danger involved if you are not safe, and we always teach safety.
It is an exciting sport. But you’re right that there’s a survival part to it, Phil.
So, tell us how you both started in sports.
I didn’t play organized sports until high school. I remember my older brother taking me to grade school and there was a basketball laying there. I could barely pick it up at first, but for some reason I just fell in love with it. My brother would have to forcibly take me out of the gym after that.
In high school my main sport was basketball, and all we had besides that was 6-man football and baseball which I did too. Our football field did not have turf- it looked like it had been road graded. I didn’t even know much of what track or the Olympics was until I was 21.
Chuck grew up in a tiny town called Benton City, and he also boxed a little bit. He’s always been an active person. He was a little hyper, so if it was today they would have given him some drug to calm him down.
How I got started with pole vaulting is interesting. We went to the beach a lot as a kid, and I just loved to jump. I talked my brother and sister into holding up a string and I would use a piece of driftwood to jump over it. A friend of mine and I started ‘driftwood jumping’ together.
I was going to try out for track in high school but was diagnosed with a heart murmur as a freshman and was a little apprehensive about it. But I decided ‘Aw, forget it, I’m going to turn out for it anyway’ and both me and my brother entered track in my junior year. I heard you can improve jumping height by running cross country, so I did that in my senior year, too.
Philip was great pole vaulting in high school, especially under the conditions they had. They jumped on a parking lot and landed onto bales of hay. I don’t think they even wore spikes back then.
My best vault in high school was 12 feet three inches. I only got as far as district, but I had a lot of fun. I was not good enough to vault in college, and it was difficult to find a place to do it anymore. I didn’t start back up until I was 35.
Chuck was actively involved with his church work, but he didn’t exercise a lot while we were in high school. But Dad started running with my brother Bruce, and he just kept running after he went off to college. Dad ran many races, including marathons.
My first official race was a marathon! A college professor got me interested in 1973 when I was 39. He told me he was doing a marathon at 64 years old. Well, I thought, ‘If that old guy can do that, then I certainly can.’ I got my son Bruce to train me. I remember on the first 20-mile training run I couldn’t go another step at ten miles. We walked a bit and he talked me into jogging, and then I felt I could finish. I remember my first marathon time was three hours and 58 minutes.
I’ve done 66 marathons in all. That’s one for every year I’ve been married. You have to get away from the house for a couple of hours every now and then, you know. [Laugh]
Dad and Bruce were fast runners. It’s interesting, all the little motivators we had through the years. Dad used to hike with his professor, and us kids often came along with them. It was always something we did together all through the years, being outdoors and enjoying life.
And there’s a little thing in our family about that. If Chuck was doing something exciting -like climbing Mt. Ranier- I was going to make sure I did it with him. So, when he was going to go to Senior Games, I was going with him, too. I didn’t want him one step ahead of me on these adventures!
We’ve always done things like that together as a family.
How did you two get involved in senior competitions?
When I was 35, my brother-in-law was organizing a weekly ‘all comers’ sporting event up in Bellingham, and they supplied poles to practice and compete. So, my wife Rosaura and I started driving about 100 miles up there every Monday to pole vault for two hours, turn around and drive all the way home. We did that for years, but we never got tired of doing it and have kept vaulting ever since.
So did Chuck get involved in Senior Games first?
My first Washington State Senior Games was 2003. But I wasn’t too motivated to go to National Senior Games at first.
We talked each other into going. 2003 was also my first Senior Games. The reason we thought we were never going to go to Nationals was that they were always too far away. There’s a lot of people who qualify and want to go but can’t afford it. But when we heard they were coming to Palo Alto in 2009, we thought, ‘Hey, this would be a hoot- we could go to the National Senior Games!’ That got it started. We’ve only missed Cleveland in 2013 since then.
What’s it like to be at National Senior Games with so many other fit people your age?
My first impression was that I couldn’t compete against these guys. I had won a lot at state games, so I was prepared a little bit. But here’s these world class people! It was kind of scary in that way. But I try my best, as the old cliché says.
What impressed me next was being with all these healthy older people. My goodness, there’s so much in the Senior Games that people can become involved in. It’s not just track and field, which I love, but it’s also the whole gamut of other sports. Like that wimpy game of pickleball that Phil plays. [Phil laughs] Yeah, those people want all the attention. [Both laugh]
But I do enjoy competition, any kind, I don’t care. I’ll tell you, Phil and I are so competitive that we can’t walk down to the mailbox without getting into an argument halfway down the driveway. [Both laugh]
At church they say we can’t say ten words without getting into an argument about who’s right. But it’s all in fun. We love each other dearly, but we love to get at each other too.
So, what were your first impressions of The Games, Phil?
It’s a flood of emotions. You go through your life you’re struggling wondering if you’re worthy of anything, am I good enough, you know. But when I first got there I had a feeling of accomplishment, that I’ve made into to this thing. And there’s all these people everywhere, marvelous personalities. It’s a mass of people, competing at a very high level in most cases.
We went over to watch the basketball players and it was amazing to see them play hard. I love watching the runners to see how they change their style as they get older. I tell people it’s like running in a refrigerator box as you get older. You can’t afford to get ahead and rush, so you run a little closer into yourself. [Chuck laughs] It’s always great to watch the really older guys out there, throwing shot put and pole vaulting. There are even guys older than my Dad there. [Both laugh] You watch them make an approach and the whole family looks like they want to run keep them from falling backwards!
But the camaraderie is great. Everybody’s trying to help each other. It’s a really great experience.
Chuck, as athletes grow older they also find there are fewer competitors in their next age group. You were the only one the 85-89 age in Birmingham last year, so you got the gold. But you had to be there to get it!
Well, that is the case in some events at the state level. This was the first time I didn’t have competition at the national games. I like to say that everyone else chickened out when they heard Chuck Milliman was competing.
I always dreamed of having him and me win golds at the same Nationals.
It’s clear you guys are competitive. Do you set winning medals as a big goal?
Not really, but I’ve got a picture of Dad throwing his arms in the air and yelling when he won his first gold medal at the Washington Senior Games in 2003. I’ve never seen such unadulterated joy. It was exciting.
I have looked back and realized a couple of things. Some years I am older than the next guy in my group who’s going to blow away my record. It’s just random chance. If you’re in it for the medals, you shouldn’t be in it because you’re just going to be disappointed at some point. Why have I gotten two gold medals at Nationals? It’s sheer luck. You know what? I’m just going to go down that runway and do my best, and whatever that ends up is what it is. So we both have two national golds. And you don’t feel like you’re anything special, huh Chuck?
Oh no. But I’ll tell you this. The most exciting thing in the Senior Games is aging up to a new five-year age group. That’s the sweet spot, because you’re the youngest now and you can take those old guys! [Laugh]
But as I said, I just like the camaraderie, the togetherness of people enjoying themselves. I’ve gone to very few meets where you find anyone being super negative about life. It’s like a lease for enjoying life.
As a pastor you need to care deeply for people, Chuck. It must be heartwarming to witness how everyone uplifts each other at Senior Games.
I think that comes with it. You may not realize it at first, but when you find you can do it, you want to support others. It’s not just for me. If I can help others enjoy life better for themselves, I think that’s great. It carries over in other activities, not just in track and field. But it’s a direct result of everyone trying to be good and it makes everyone feel good about it, if that makes sense.
Number one, I’m a big believer that you gotta keep moving until the day your drop. Anything you can do to keep moving and being your best helps you to live longer and have a better quality of life. It’s critical for me in everything I do. I’m active in my church, and I’m a volunteer pole vault coach at our high school. Everybody needs something to hang onto that makes them unique and different.
Second, as you can tell, Dad and I love competition. It’s a way of motivating yourself to keep going and to do something that may set you apart. That allows you to get up the next day and say ‘I can do that.’ It makes it easier to deal with failure we all have at times too.
The third thing is exactly what my Dad was saying. When you’re out competing, you’re not trying to crush anybody else, you’re trying to do your very best, and you’re doing it with other people. So they do their best, you get excited, and everyone is cheering each other and doing better. In a real way it’s a great family time.
I agree to that. There’s an exhilaration of winning at that moment. And then when you come in 4th or 5th you think ‘I could’ve done better, what’s the matter with me?’ in that moment. I think it’s both things that make you better. But I’ve got so many medals, I just think ‘Who cares, anyway?’ [Laugh]
But I’ll tell you, I have the two meanest coaches anyone could have: Phil and my wife! [Both laugh] She’ll watch us pole vaulting in the yard and the first thing she says when I come in is, ‘You have to do that over. You did that all wrong!’ [Laugh]
(Courtesy Washington State Senior Games - https://youtu.be/yjdH0Z3krmI)
We hear you guys train hard, and that you’ve made your own pit in your back yard.
Yeah, we’re on our second pit now. A few years ago, I got an old trashed one that was in storage at the high school. Then I found out I had family whose kids pole vaulted in eastern Washington. After they graduated high school I asked if we could have their old pit and they said sure. If you’ve ever packed a pole vault pit to move, get the very largest U Haul truck you can find! We got it home and have had it now for ten years I guess.
Chuck and I have special training drills to work on the muscles we need to do this. We set up rings in the garage to build arm strength, and we have a sand pit to do drills in.
I’ve looked back at our pole vault numbers from all the state games and it’s really cool that we’ve only varied by six inches over the 14 years. The reason we can maintain that level of success is because we are working every day to improve ourselves in whatever sport we’re doing. So as the age curve is declining the skill curve is increasing, we’re pretty much level all across. I set a state record when I was 52 with an 11 foot jump. Last year I did 10 feet six inches when I won my gold medal. You can’t do that unless you are constantly improving your technique and style.
So what’s your favorite sport now, Phil? Pole vaulting or pickleball?[Both laugh]
Oh, you’ve got him now!
Pole vaulting wins, it’s my passion. But here’s the deal on pickleball: it is the most accessible sport as people age that there is. Not in singles, that can be tough, but doubles pickleball is growing like crazy for a reason. We play in a doubles league here and there are people with injured legs and knees and arms, but they’re still enjoying it and playing competitively.
You are both naturally active. How do you encourage others to be fit who don’t relate to sports as easily?
I try to tell them they will feel better. Don’t do it because somebody told you to do it, do it because you will feel better physically. It helps you mentally too. Also, take it slow and don’t do hardly anything extreme for the first couple of months. I used to think everyone ought to run marathons, and a big regret is that I’ve ruined a few people making them do too much. The whole point is to feel better. The moving factor will get your blood flowing and your lungs working, and you may not feel comfortable for a little while, but you’re not going to die either. Your muscle tone will improve, and a big thing I’ve noticed is that it reduces stress immensely. It just does.
We both have a track record of encouraging others to get out and do things with us in the outdoors. Chuck used to counsel kids when he was a pastor and encouraged them to go hiking or skiing or whatever. We organize hiking and biking groups, disc golf, snowshoeing and skiing, all kinds of things with all ranges of people. Oh, and pickleball too, of course. [Chuck laughs] We’ll alternate between heavy duty stuff and things like a one-mile walk to meander for those folks who are not so energetic. We try to find any way we can to get people excited about getting up and getting out. And you don’t want to burn them out the first step, so you start small. They begin to see why we do these things, enjoying the day and the time together. It all factors into making people healthier. We try to inspire them to continue to enjoy doing it on their own.
In our family, we’ve all had different journeys with our exercise. Dad’s always been a sports guy, and Mom has always joined with him when she could. They made us do stuff every Sunday afternoon after church. We would cry and moan. [Imitates himself as a kid] ‘Do we have to go?’ [Chuck laughs] To this day everyone in our family is active. Our parents have inspired whole generations, down to the grandkids and now great-grandkids, who get out there and enjoy life to its fullest.
You know, you could almost make that a theme: Bring someone with you to The Games.
We think it’s safe to say we’ll be seeing the Millimans at National Senior Games for some time to come.
Oh yeah, you betcha.
You gotta go til you drop. It’s not about how well you are going to do in Senior Games. You do it to have your quality of life as long as you can.