Total trip miles to date: 14,359
I spent almost two hours at the beach yesterday. It was sunny, breezy, and relaxing. We all know that being in the sun can have health benefits, there are a number, but one of them is to increase levels of serotonin, which helps to balance moods and increase happiness. It works! I felt great after the beach visit! I laid on the beach relaxing and reminiscing of the past and how I first came to Florida.
In August of 1972, I flew down to Florida to go to school at the University of Florida. It was my first airplane flight and I left my hometown of Lexington, KY with mixed emotions. I was leaving my older brother, and I had a gut feeling I would never move back to Lexington. I was leaving my friends behind, my many memories of growing up in that city, and with lots of questions about my future. I had signed with the University of Florida in April, so I had a few months to get ready for the big move. It was exciting, but it was also scary. Having been the star athlete in HS, at the top of the ladder in my event, I was now down the pecking order of pole vaulters at the University of Florida. I would have to earn my way to the top. Scary, but exciting. When I landed in Gainesville, I went straight to the track to see where I would be training (I had signed with UF without even visiting). I noticed that a man was on the track, apparently doing a workout. As I got closer, I realized it was Frank Shorter. The Frank Shorter! He was doing his final interval workout before leaving for the Munich Olympic Games. Of course, I knew who Frank Shorter was, all track & field people knew. On this day, people at the track stopped what they were doing and just stood around the track watching him run 20 x 400m, fast, and on a short recovery. He made it look easy that day, and would manifest that fitness into a gold medal in a few short weeks. What an introduction to track & field at Gainesville.
I called the track office and scheduled an appointment to meet with Coach Jimmy Carnes. He was well on his way to becoming an icon in the sport, having started the Florida Track Club, and built the UF program into a powerhouse. He invited me over to his office in the west side of the SWAMP, the football stadium. I was so happy to meet the man who had signed me, but whom I had never seen. He was effusive in his welcome. There was another athlete in his office, one he had apparently invited over to meet me. Will, I’d like you to meet Mike Cotton, your teammate and defending SEC vault champion. I reached out a hand and said, “Glad to see you again, Mike.” “Have we met?” he asked.
When I was a junior in HS, the SEC meet was in Lexington, hosted by the University of Kentucky. I skipped school on Friday to go UK to see the meet. Having no money, I jumped the fence along the back straight, close to the vault. As luck with have it, two official-looking men approached. I was sure they had seen me jump the fence, and no doubt, were there to escort me to the gate. I could not have been more surprised when the conversation went like this:
“Are you Will Freeman?” (I had been in the paper that week with a big story on my vaulting).
“Uh, yes, sir. Sorry, I, uh…”
“Will, our pole vault official is unable to be here today, and we’re scrambling to find someone to run the vault. Can you help us?”
Stunned, I said, “You want me to run the SEC pole vault”, pretty much in shock.
“Can you help us? We’re in a real bind. We will get you a couple of students to help you put up the bar.”
Yeah, UK, students who are older than me.
“We’ll bring the clipboard and tape measure over, the ladder is already at the pit, they’ll start
warming up in about 30 minutes. Here’s your official’s shirt.
I was in shock, unsure if I could do this and not screw it up. I took a big breath, put on the shirt and walked over to the vault. Keep in mind that was way before social media. My track information came from Track & Field News, the periodical on the sport. I was well aware of those in this competition, all big names in the event. Mike Cotton, UF SEC champion, Scott Hurley, former UF SEC champion, Bob Sprung of Tennessee, another huge talent, and a few other talents.
I called the vaulters together, introduced myself, and told them that I was filling in and that I was a vaulter and knew the event inside and out, and would be running the event. That solicited a few smiles and head shakes as I’m sure they wondered how a young kid could be running such a big event. I pledged to them to make it go smoothly and wished them all luck. I’ll never forget Mike Cotton, the UF star just a year from being the USA national champion, telling me, “You got this, Will.” He called me by my name! I secretly hoped he would win that day. Mike Cotton would win that day, and the event went off just fine.
Back to Coach Carnes office, a year and a half later.
Mike asked, “You’re that young kid who ran the PV off that day. You’ve grown up a bit.”
“Or you’ve shrunk.” I responded. Coach Carnes and Mike joined me in a big laugh. I made two friends for life that day. My coach and mentor, Jimmy Carnes, and my best friend, Mike Cotton. Just nine months later both of us would win national championships in the event, Mike, the AAU senior nationals, and me the AAU junior nationals. It’s the only time one school has done this in the vault., and it cemented a friendship that continues to this day. So many good memories, and why keeping friends is so important. I look forward to seeing Mike and his wife Debbie later today. Lots of catching up to do.