THE TRAIL Ellicott City's Tomlinson "Tom" Rauscher followed to middle-age success and obvious happiness in pole vaulting began innocently enough, in seventh grade, with a new friend's invitation to play tennis.
The boys tired of tennis at the high school in Glens Falls, N.Y., Rauscher said last week. But, finding themselves near the school's pole vaulting pit with several poles lying nearby, they decided to experiment. Rauscher, it would turn out, found a lifetime sport.
Making the high school track team would follow, as did a conference pole-vault championship, then "a little bit" of competition during his freshman and sophomore years at Yale University. But studies meant putting his sport aside for more than a decade.
"There aren't a lot of opportunities for most pole vaulters to compete after college," said Rauscher, 57, a computer company president and - since June - the National Senior Games Association's pole vault champion for men 55 to 59.
It took chasing employment to Rochester, N.Y., in his early 30s for Rauscher to pick up another pole. To his amazement, he said, vaulting had undergone a technological revolution - from the rigid, steel, wood or bamboo poles he learned on to new, springy, fiberglass models that required a whole new set of physical skills.
"They're completely different sports," said Rauscher, who found new friends and companions at a Rochester track club. Always wanting to stay fit, he also found some coaching in the new skills so he could persist with his love of dashing a short distance, jamming a long pole into a slot and using it to fling his body over a horizontal stick placed, sometimes, nearly three times his height.
Rauscher also discovered an unpublicized world of "masters sports," in which track and field amateurs compete in anonymity in meets that can be local, regional, national or international in scope. At age 45, he became masters champion of the outdoor pole vault with an age-group - and personal - record jump of 14 feet, 6 inches.
Rauscher stands 5 feet 4, definitely not to his advantage in a sport in which, he said, the very best vaulters are about 6 feet or a bit taller.
The new skills he still works to master require agility and coordination, as well as gymnastic ability, he said. He refines those skills - including back and double flips - on Columbia Gymnastics' trampolines with sponge-filled landing areas.
For vaulting itself, Rauscher occasionally works out with Mount Hebron's track team, helping teach vaulting aspirants proper technique, as well as at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he earned a doctorate in computer science.
"For the early vaulters, the ones I grew up with, including [two-time Olympic gold medalist and Wheaties spokesman Bob Richards and one-time gold medalist Don Bragg], it was much more of a muscle event than it is now. They were both mooses. I've met them."
Rauscher, who has won a second outdoor national masters title, competes in four to six indoor meets and the same number of outdoor meets each year, most regional. In Maryland Senior Olympics competition, only one man, from Havre de Grace, is competitive with him.
Rauscher sometimes augments his vaulting with sprinting, not as strange a blend as some might think. He has held several Maryland Senior Olympics sprint titles.
"Some of the really good vaulters also are fast," he said. "You need a strong, fast start to jump well."
Along the sidelines
SWIMMING: If you're 19 or older and the idea of competitive swimming, or the training that goes with it, appeals to you, check out the new Central Maryland Masters Swim team at the Howard County YMCA in Ellicott City. Coach Mike Jacobson is seeking more swimmers, male or female, for a season that begins next month. Check the team's Web site, www.cmym.us, or call the Y at 410-465-4334.
Call the writer at 410-332- 6525 or send e-mail to lowell.sunderland@balt sun.com.