Just what possesses someone to take a pole in their hand, run as fast as they can, plant the pole and vault themselves more than a dozen feet up into the air and then land on a pad without seriously afflicting pain upon their bones, muscles or tendons. For one former Dublin High School athlete, pole vaulting seemed to be the natural thing to do. Ira Welborn, a former state and national champion, has been pole vaulting for more than a half century. Today at 62, he still remains active as a vaulting coach and as a weekend warrior, still seeking to make the perfect jump.
Ira Welborn was born in Dublin just as our country was about to enter World War II. As a kid living on Washington Street, Ira would often wander over to the neighborhood creek. His first poles were limbs which he used to vault over the creek. He looked up to the Olympic vaulters, who fostered his interest in the sport of pole vaulting. Ira’s mother, Mary Turner Barfield, came to Dublin to live with her father, Wiley Turner, who worked at the plywood mill down by the river. Ira didn’t come from a wealthy family. “It seems like I delivered half of the papers in Dublin every morning and I had a route in the afternoon too,” said Welborn. Later his family moved to Woodland Avenue near Dublin High School. Ira remembered that in the mid 1950s, Dublin High didn’t have a track field. Runners ran laps around the football field. There was no true facility for pole vaulting, the team didn’t even own a pole except an old 16 pound steel pole that wouldn’t bend.
One day when Ira was about twelve or thirteen years old, he was hanging around the track. He spotted a strong athlete who was attempting to set the school record of around 8 and a half feet. Admitting his cockiness as a youth, Ira boasted that he could easily make the jump. The highly incensed track star dared the young whippersnapper to try it, threatening to kick his rear if he didn’t and having no doubts that Ira could do it in the first place. Ira grabbed a pole, ran and made it over the bar much to the utter amazement of the embarrassed challenger. The rest, as
they say, is history.
Undaunted and without the use of a regulation pole, Ira vaulted with anything he could find, even bamboo poles cut from the woods. He practiced and practiced. He got pretty good at vaulting, so much so that when no one was looking, he’d get a pole and jump over the 10 foot tall goal posts at Battle Field. “I would have been in trouble if anyone saw me and I would really be in trouble if I hit my chin on the way down,” Ira fondly remembered. Tom Stewart was Ira’s first coach. In his senior season, the track team got a new coach, Earl O’Neal. “Coach O’Neal admitted to me that he knew nothing about pole vaulting, but he took me to all of the big meets and allowed me to compete,” Welborn remarked.
All of the hard work and dedication paid off. Following his usual custom of borrowing someone else’s pole, Ira set a Georgia High School record in the 1959 State Track Meet. His vault of 11 feet 10 and one half inches, which was actually closer to 12 feet, stood for many years before being broken when fiberglass poles came into use. While Ira didn’t participate in any other track and field events, he did play basketball. He played on one of Minton Williams’ basketball teams which went undefeated in its regular season, a year which included a 30 point blowout over the Cochran Royals in Cochran and Cochran’s subsequent forfeit to Dublin. Remarkably in the state playoffs, Dublin drew Cochran, which in the meantime had added a strong player, who appeared to be in his third year as a senior in high school. Cochran slipped by Dublin, only to win the state championship.
Ira was offered a track scholarship to Southern Miss, but the school decided to drop track and field before he got a chance to participate. He played around during his college years jumping in an unofficial capacity, but got out of the sport to teach. He taught for ten years, without vaulting much at all. It was during this time when the fiberglass poles came into popularity and changed the sport forever. In those days good poles were (and still are) expensive for the average vaulter. Ira left the sport soon after he got married. Like most of us, Ira gained weight after high school. As he approached the age of thirty, he got into body building. Knowing that in order to get back to the sport he dearly loved, he would have to shave nearly twenty percent of his body weight. He trained hard and long and dropped forty pounds in six weeks to drop to a nearly ideal weight of 180 pounds.
In 1973, Ira competed in the annual track meet in his second hometown in Jacksonville, Florida. At the age of 32, he set and still holds the city record with a jump of 14 feet 10 inches. In 1976, he traveled out to Oregon for the Masters National Championship. Competing with the best of the best vaulters in the country, Ira won the competition and set a national record for a vault for a person over the age of thirty with a jump of 14 feet 6 inches.
Ira continued to work out and train. He built a pole vaulting facility in his back yard. To this day and about once a month he and two buddies, one from Fitzgerald and the other from Apopca, Florida meet and try to set records for vaulters over the age of sixty. Once a year, Ira hosts a 4th of July vaulting party, where his friends and former students gather together for an evening of food, drink and vaulting.
At the age of fifty six, Ira traveled to Maine to compete in the Masters Championship. Ira managed to win the national event with a remarkable jump of 10 feet 6 inches, considering that fact that he was in his mid 50s and that at times the wind was blowing at speeds approaching 45 mph.
Ira is still teaching pole vaulting and putting on clinics. He regrets the sport is beginning to wane because of the high liabilities involved. Welborn has observed that actually young girls and women are helping to save the sport. He sees a lot of fathers who are supporting their daughters in the sport, which seems to derive a lot of its new participants from former gymnasts. His greatest reward comes from seeing his students achieving their personal best marks and winning competitions. He enjoys working with novice jumpers and molding them into champions.
You’ll find Ira out in his back yard jumping twice a week, still looking for the elusive perfect jump. Welborn compares vaulting to golf, “you practice and practice and never make the perfect jump.” In the meantime, he keeps in shape maintaining his high school physique, but trying to avoid a career ending injury. He plans to jump until he is seventy five years old. You know what, I think he’ll do it, and I wouldn’t bet you any money that he can still jump over the goal posts at the old Battle Field.