At first glance, Samuel Griffith seems like an average 64-year-old.
The retired Beltsville senior is a veteran of three wars, and he sometimes feels the burn of sore, aching muscles that many associate with growing older.
There is, however, one difference that becomes evident when Griffith sprints down a narrow runway, jabs a tall stick into a pit and flings himself several feet into the air.
Griffith is a champion pole-vaulter. The 5-foot-10, 155-pound athlete has turned a childhood fantasy, which he acted out by jumping off tree branches in the woods of Mount Carmel, Pa., into reality.
At yesterday's third and final day of the Maryland Senior Olympics at Towson State, Griffith cleared 8 feet, 6 inches, to take the gold in the 60-64 age-group division. Maryland seniors, age 55 and older, competed in 33 events, ranging from horseshoe pitching to pole vaulting.
Griffith, who began his track and field career at 58, has amassed over 50 gold medals and 40 silvers since retirement, including gold medals at the National Senior Olympics in the pole vault and high jump. He is ranked third in the world in the high jump, for competitors age 60-64, with a 4-8.
"I did it on my own," said Griffith. "When I tried to find a coach to help train me I got several very negative responses. They all thought it was a waste of their time."
Griffith began doing aerobics, which he still does for 45 minutes twice a week, and light weight training. Now, one week before a competition, Griffith goes to the University of Maryland's Byrd Stadium to practice both pole vaulting and high jumping.
Last week, in the midst of football practice, Griffith was approached by Maryland strength and conditioning coach Frank Costello, who offered a ray of hope for the athlete's future.
"He yelled, 'Hey, come over here,' " said Griffith, who thought Costello, a former National Collegiate Athletic Association high jump champion, was kicking him out of the stadium. "Instead, he told me he liked what I was doing and offered to train me for the National Senior Olympics.
"Hearing him say that was like winning the Lotto five straight times. That's exactly what I'd been looking for."
By the national games, in Syracuse, N.Y. next June, Griffith will be qualified for the older 65-69 age category. With proper training, he thinks that he can win both the pole vault and high jump.