By Ken Stone
Don Pellmann, the ironman athlete who set five world age-group records at age 100 in San Diego five summers ago, died Sunday in Santa Clara, according to his son Ned.
He was 105.
“His last masters track competition was his record breaking event in San Diego right after his 100th birthday,” Ned Pellmann told Times of San Diego.
Pellmann died after after failing health following hip surgery from a fall a month ago, his son said.
“He passed peacefully and we think without a lot of suffering,” Ned said.
By setting world records in the 100-meter dash, high jump, long jump, discus and shot put — enduring temperatures hovering around 100 at the San Diego Senior Olympics at Mesa College — Pellmann became a front-page story in The New York Times in September 2015.
Karen Crouse covered that day for the Times.
“Wearing baggy shorts and a faded red T-shirt with ‘Donald Pellmann Established 1915 Milwaukee, WI,’ written across the front, he opened his program by trying to become the oldest man, by roughly nine years, to record a height in the pole vault,” Crouse wrote. “He dislodged the bar three times at 3 feet 1¾ inches, which gnawed at him the rest of the day.”
“I thought I was in better shape,” said Pellmann, born Aug. 12, 1915.
(In fact, he cleared the bar in practice. His misses were a result of not properly timing the push-away from the pole. Video of his vaults has been viewed 180,000 times.)
Pellmann told Crouse he had been a gymnast and a high jumper in his youth.
“The Depression cut short his athletic career at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, then known as La Crosse State Teachers College,” she wrote. “Pellmann said he quit the track team to get a job. After raising three children with his wife, Marge, who is in her early 90s, Pellmann retired from his job with a General Electric subsidiary in 1970.”
Marge died in 2018 after a 71-year marriage to Don, who is survived by his three sons — Ned, Jay and Jim.
“Since we are all mortal at some time, Don’s going strong at 100 was amazing!” said Bob Weiner, a Washington-based spokesman for USATF masters track and field.
Several days later, Pellmann was interviewed by National Public Radio.
He told radio host Ari Shapiro: “It was a kind of a rough day both because of the weather. It was quite warm, and also I had a kind of a bad day.”
Shapiro replied: “Well, Mr. Pellmann, if you set five world records on a bad day, I can only imagine what a good day would’ve looked like.”
Pellmann said: “Well, when I was my 90th year, I competed in a national at Fort Collins, Colo. And I had a good day that day and set seven world records on that day.”
Pete Taylor of Virginia, a veteran track meet announced who once worked at CDC and NIH, called Pellmann a “hard knocker” who was a bit of a showman.
“And why be overly modest if you can set five world records in one day? … In terms of showmanship, one should note that Don liked to put on a show but did not dress the part, with very modest shoes and a rather staid shirt and shorts,” he said.
“His real desire was to test himself while showing the world what could be done after many decades as a participant in the game of life. In short, he was the type of showman who enjoys giving to others, and these men and women are always welcome in our world of track and field.”
Taylor said one way to judge Pellmann’s greatness is that he still holds the American record for three consecutive age groups in the 100-meter dash: 17.83 seconds for men 90-94, 24.14 for men 95-99, and 26.99 for men 100-104.
“That puts him in select company, as the only other man with that distinction is the incomparable Willie Gault, with 10.72 for men 45-49, 10.88 for 50-54, and 11.30 for 55-59,” Taylor said. “Yes, the same Willie Gault who played for the Chicago Bears and the Los Angeles Raiders in the National Football League. I won’t venture a guess as to who was better, Willie or Don.”
At the Mesa College meet, Times of San Diego asked the centenarian: “Why do you do this?”
“Somebody has to do it,” he replied.
His M100 world records still stand, including 100 meters in 26.99 seconds and high jump of 0.90 meters — 2 feet 11 1/2 inches. He also holds four outdoor world records in the M90 and M95 age groups and an indoor world record (1.82 or 5-11 1/2 in the pole vault) in the M90 group.
No memorial services are planned.
Updated at 9:30 p.m. Oct. 14, 2020
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