W55 jump champion Martha Mendenhall calls it a masters career

Lahti gold was only one of several world titles.

Coach Martha Mendenhall of Tacoma, Washington, has been a star on our circuit for so long we take her high-flopping for granted. But alas, on Facebook recently she announced her retirement from track. I was shocked. Her friends were not. They were aware of her battles with hip ailments. Still, I didn’t want to let the revelation go unremarked upon. She’s a world champion and fierce competitor who also dabbled in sprints. So I wrote Martha and she graciously replied to my questions. We’ll miss her on the track and apron.

My favorite shot of Martha — after she won high jump gold at Lahti worlds.

Masterstrack.com: What led to your hip operations? How and when did you decide to retire? No possible comeback in a few years?

Martha Mendenhall: I had been diagnosed with pretty severe arthritis in my hips (worse in the right jumping leg) about 10 years ago. Needless to say, it cramped my competitive style quite a bit, as I would have some pretty significant arthritic flare-ups depending on what period of training I was in.

I had to stop hurdling long ago because of hip pain in my trail leg — then went the long jump. High jump was my baby and I was concentrating on that and the 100/200. After attending a boot camp in the summer of 2011, I had a major arthritic flare-up that I just could not bounce back from.

After shopping five different docs, I landed one that felt perfect for me. I was a great candidate for the new Anterior Approach Total Hip Replacement and that was what he recommended. Both hips! I explained to him that my goal was to compete in one last world meet so that I could say goodbye to all of my international friends and jump one last time, so I wanted to continue my training and have him help me through the pain management and decreased range of motion until the meet in Brazil.

That would be my retirement meet and then I would have my surgery. He agreed and helped me manage the pain and inflammation with nonsteroidal medications and hip injections (OUCH!) I was relegated to intense Deep Water Running workouts, Spin Bike, some track interval work, some hill work, Yoga, modified lifting, etc.

I always said I wanted to retire when I was on top and still jumping well. Not that there is ANYTHING wrong with continuing into your upper years as those heights get lower and lower. It’s just not for me. The nature of this event is to jump until failure. I just wanted “failure” to look a little better than usual 🙂

I have been running again since 12 weeks post op, and I actually took a few jumps at an All Comers Meet this past summer and it felt pretty great, but again — not a terribly challenging height.

What did you do as a young jumper? Where and when PR, for example? Sprints?

Track and field has been a part of my life since third grade. The first team I was ever on was in Lemoore, CA. I remember that Tommie Smith’s sister was on that same team with me and Tommie had been on it just before I had come there. I was jumping over 5 feet in sixth or seventh grade.

Long jump, high jump and hurdles were my events in grade school, middle school and high school. But you have to remember the times then. I was riding the transition “Wave” of Title IX back then. I attended a Catholic School in Flint, Michigan, that had no women’s track team. I spent the first two years on the men’s team, with no one to compete with so I ran against guys.

From left in Lahti 4×1 relay: Martha, Shemayne Williams, Sarah Lawson and Joy Upshaw.

I remember running 180 hurdles and shuttle hurdles and riding the team bus, etc. In my junior year, they started a track team for the women. We stunk! Our coach stunk, but she tried. She was the English teacher and had NO idea what she was doing. I had been competing since the third grade so I wound up helping to teach all of the events.

I competed in five events every track meet! It was crazy! I never got to go to a state meet because we simply didn’t have them yet. In college, St. Thomas Aquinas in Michigan, I was the only girl on the men’s team AGAIN! I did, however, compete against other college women’s teams. It was an interesting phenomenon.

At one meet, I scored more points than our whole men’s team, clearing 5-9 3/4 in the high jump! Pretty funny. I had absolutely no coaching because the coach just simply tolerated my being there. He hadn’t really swung over to the whole Title IX thing 🙂

When I think back about what I might have been able to accomplished had a coach taken an interest in me, it boggles my mind. I do feel a little bit cheated but, like I said, I was riding that wave.

What did you do as a young jumper? Where and when PR, for example? Sprints?

1992 I believe, was my first year competing in masters track and field. High jump being my forte, my best jump as a masters athlete was probably in Maine. I was training under Chuck Hunter, a student of Loren Seagrave, and I had my best jumping year ever and it was my first time medaling in the 100 (bronze)!

When you’re a high jumper, you don’t measure your best jumps by what color of medal you got, or if you even were in the medals. When you have a strong, beautiful jump you totally know it! My jumps were that way that year. 1.60 came easy and 1.65 was barely a miss.

2005 was MONUMENTAL!! A culmination of a year and a half of intense hard work under the tutelage of Kettrell Berry, brought me to a trifecta at nationals in Honolulu with a win in the HJ, 100/200 and then a few weeks later my win at worlds in the high jump (my first world championship). I would have to say THAT was my best masters year ever.

Best masters moment?

A couple of competitions stand out in my mind. I believe it was in 2003 when [Olympian] Trish (King) Porter came out to Eugene and high jumped against me. She took my national title away from me for the first time in like 10 years, but I didn’t really even care! I was so thrilled to have met and jumped with her that I never really got over it! We became friends and competed with each other ever since.

Another memorable moment was realizing that I had won at the world meet in San Sebastian, Spain. My first world win. It was an overwhelming feeling. I had accomplished a goal that I had set for myself so long ago. It was amazing.

It was very early in the morning and the big stadium was empty except for the few athletes that had come to watch their teammates compete in this one lone event. Joy [Upshaw] was there for me, and I remember hearing her from the stands. Our Aussie friend Marie [Kay] was cheering for me too. It was an international support team! LOL

Running the 4×1 relay with my two best friends in Finland was definitely a highlight for me! We had a baton drop in Italy that put us out of our relay so this was an effort to redeem ourselves, and it was amazing!

Of course, the truly accomplished athletes that I have had the honor to rub shoulders with NEVER, NEVER gets old. I will never take for granted how they got where they were because I KNOW how hard they worked. Joy Upshaw, Trish Porter, Debbie Brill, Marie Kay, Robert Thomas, Don Drummond, Courtland Grey, Dick Fosbury, Dwight Stones, Jim Barrineau, Steve Robbins, just to name a few.

How did you, Joy and Sarah Lawson get to be such close chums?

6)I met Joy in 1993 or 1994, I believe at a meet in Eugene. We were long jumping together, although in different age groups.I knew of Sarah, but we really became pals at a national meet in Spokane. I don’t quite know how that all came together other than that we just really hit it off! I love those two like sisters!

You travel a lot. Is this on account of hubby being a pilot? Favorite destinations?

Truly, most every place I’ve been, with the exception of a few family vacations, have been for track meets. My masters track career has enabled me to see places I otherwise would never have seen. I have stayed home and raised my children. Everyone thinks because my husband is a pilot that we have spent our lives just traveling all over the place. We rarely have been able to go somewhere together.

He has stayed with the kids or with Violet so that I could pursue this track and field passion. Traveling on a Non-Revenue Employee Stand By Status is not always a great deal! 🙂 I have been bumped off more flights than you can imagine!

As for my favorite destination, I would have to say Italy. I loved the country and its people. I felt a real connection there. I could totally live there. Ha ha. Never mind that we dropped the baton there in the 4×1 :-0

You dote on Violet. Is she Claire or Ginger’s daughter you’re caring for? (I’m unclear on the relationship.)

7) Violet is my grand-daughter. My husband and I have raised her since birth. We were able to bring her into our lives because her mom was not in a place in her life that enabled her to care for and be responsible for another person. She was struggling just trying to get herself on track.

The alternative was to NOT bring her into this world. Violet has been a true blessing in our lives. As of September, Violet lives with her mom and new stepfather in Okinawa, Japan. Tough, tough transition for us. We are all struggling.

What do you do for a living? Will you continue to coach track, work with Fosbury?

I am presently coaching high jump and hurdles at Pacific Lutheran University here in the Tacoma area, and this will be my seventh year as a high jump coach for the UW Winter Track and Field Clinics in the winter months. I just coached my third season of my summer Track and Field club of 3- to 7-year-olds called Tiny Tracksters TC. I am in my fourth year coaching with Dick Fosbury up at his awesome T&F camp in Maine, and I am strongly pursuing my higher coaching credentials. I will be attending the USATF Level 3 School at the end of December.

What would you want USATF or WMA to do to grow the sport?

10) Well, this is a tough question. First of all, I am (and have always been) proud to represent our USATF as a masters athlete, and I feel that they do a very good job for us. Our USATF officials are the best you can get. But if I had to offer some suggestions, I would say the USATF could consider sponsoring us with uniforms and athlete kits if we are representing the USA as a mational medal winner at a world meet.

What will you miss most about masters track?

I will definitely miss the friends I have made over the years. Friends from all over the world really. Secondly, I will miss the competition. It is such a part of who I am. It has been the one constant in my life since childhood. It’s not just a hobby, or something that I do. It’s a huge part of who I am.

Print Friendly

October 30, 2014

9 Responses

  1. Peter L. Taylor - October 31, 2014

    Without question, Martha added a whole lot to our meets, and I will miss her a great deal. On a personal note, in 1996 she shared with me her very positive reaction to my announcing of the 400 at Greensboro indoors in which Roger Pierce won by 0.01 sec over Ron Johnson.

    As that was my first national indoors, Martha’s encouraging words meant a great deal to me. Good luck, Martha.

  2. Stephen Robbins - October 31, 2014

    Martha–we’re gonna miss you. I always looked forward to seeing your smiling face at major meets. Best wishes in all your future endeavors.

  3. Roger Pierce - October 31, 2014

    Martha….Awesome resume and story of your younger days. I am 70 now, and remember clearly how women were systematically excluded from most sports. I watched many of my athletic female friends become cheerleaders as their only alternate to women’s sports.
    You have had a remarkable career and I wish you the best in everything you set out to do in the future.I am sure we will be hearing from and about you in your track endeavors.
    Peter…thanks for the great memory. That race against my good friends,Ron Johnson and Bic Stevens(who was right beside Ron at the finish of the race) was an absolutely fantastic experience for all of us….Perhaps a bit more for me because I came from behind to win!!! Great call then, and thanks for all the meets you have done with such grace and skill, since then.

  4. Bill, Kaspari - October 31, 2014

    Martha – I am really going to miss your smiling face and encouraging comments. You are one of the brightest spots in my track career. I hope you’ll still be able to attend some of our meets.

    Bill Kaspari

  5. Linda Carty - October 31, 2014

    Well now. This is just another selfish act! Who is going to play Michael Jackson songs on their Iphone for me??? haahaahaaa
    We will all miss you dearly my friend. Track meets just ain’t going to be the same without ya. I hope you can still make it to some of the meets to hang out with us. (((hugs)))

  6. James Chinn - October 31, 2014

    We will all miss you.

  7. Charlie Brocato - November 1, 2014

    You are not only a great athlete but a special lady. I remember our sprint workouts at Bellarmine. We’ll miss you on the track but hope to see you at some of the local meets. Maybe UW indoors?

  8. Weia Reinboud - November 2, 2014

    Always a pity when one of the high jumpers has to quit… Hope you’ll have a nice live outside the track.

  9. ToNy yoUNg - November 3, 2014

    Always fun to watch Mathzilla..even when jumping..happy retirement

Leave a Reply