American Treasure: Pole Vaulting Farmer, 77, is a Living Legend

There are many unique stories tied to U.S. agriculture—and then there is Cook Holliday, 77, a pole vaulting farmer and an American treasure hiding in plain sight. ( Photo by Sandra Holliday )

On a rural road in northern Georgia, a 77-year-old living legend is pounding blacktop, alternating sprints and brisk walks between a chain of mailboxes parallel to his farm. The box-to-box regimen is grueling, and the man is one of the finest septuagenarian athletes on the planet. Over the next year, he will try to break a world record by using a stick to fling his near four-score aged body into the sky. The man possesses medals, trophies and hall-of-fame accolades by the barrel, but his sporting accomplishments pale beside his true legacy: An immeasurable impact in the lives of thousands of young people.

There are many unique stories tied to U.S. agriculture—and then there is Cook Holliday. Coach, competitor, mentor, and friend, Holliday’s life of service has spawned an ongoing narrative seemingly drawn from fiction about a farm boy who cut cane in a swamp, catapulted onto the national stage, and grabbed life by the tail, using sports to better the lives of all those around him. Hyperbole aside, Cook Holliday, a pole-vaulting farmer—is an American treasure hiding in plain sight.

You Got Me?

On a small cattle and hay farm in Walton County, roughly 30 miles east of Atlanta in northcentral Georgia, Holliday walks into his barn toward an upright rack of vaulting poles and seizes his weapon of choice. Holding an 11’ fiberglass specimen, his mind leaps toward a jump and a frozen moment when he glides to success by a razor-thin margin, almost as if his inverted body is shedding an invisible skin against a vibrating crossbar. Holliday remains obsessed with vaulting, to the point where his dreams are a chain of mid-air climbs and floating descents. Even the daily act of walking up the front steps of his house is a moment of training—right arm up, and left foot pushing in perpetual takeoff mode.

Holliday grins and unravels his story with a heavy drawl, so sweet the words almost ring: “I was born to it. I was supposed to grow up on a farm and I was supposed to jump. All of my work ethic I got from farming. You got me?

He keeps—You got me?—and a dozen other colloquialisms in a front pocket filled with points of emphasis, adding layers of unique color to his speech, and as he begins recounting a remarkable life, an infectious, overwhelming zest busts loose from all angles. Simply, it is impossible not to like Cook Holliday. Back to the past he goes; back to the beginning of his American tale.

Bouncer

In the heavy agriculture environment of Wilcox County, Holliday was born in 1942, and raised on a cotton, peanut and watermelon farm outside the tiny town of Rochelle—450 acres of flat ground he still owns. Dragging a flour sack altered by his mother, Lois, cotton picking was second-nature to Holliday, and he learned to gather white fiber even before enrolling in school. In mid-August, with the sticky heat of southern Georgia pressing down, Holliday kept deft hands moving, anxious to reach the turnrow and the salvation of a gallon water jug wrapped in a brown paper bag waiting under the tree line.

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His father, Thomas, placed him behind the wheel of a tractor at age 7, plowing fields as Lois moved inside the house from room to room and window to window, keeping a nervous eye on Holliday. “Sure, I was too young, but that’s what we did back then because it was a hard living for everyone. My family had one job: farming. If you didn’t make it in the dirt, you didn’t make it. You got me?

While Lois watched her grade school son grow up on the farm, climbing trees or scaling equipment to make precarious leaps, she nicknamed him Bouncer, triggered by Holliday’s inordinate love of motion. Lois’ prescient moniker was spot-on: Whether serendipity or Providence, Holliday’s life was about to pivot.

Into the Pit

On a clear March afternoon in Rochelle, Holliday’s first grade teacher heard the final bell of the school day, and ushered her class down the halls, toward a waiting line of yellow buses. On this spring day in 1949, Holliday was the honored line leader and sprang onto an empty bus. The pick of the seats belonged entirely to a 7-year-old, and Holliday seized opportunity by the throat, sliding onto the first window seat to his right, intent on sucking in the view on the drive home. Nose nearly to the glass as he waited for the bus to fill, Holliday stared in absolute fascination at the adjacent high school track: “I literally saw a pole vaulter take off for the first time in my life,” he exclaims. “Right then, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I can do that too.”

Bouncer, indeed. “I got home, threw my books down, and ran all over the house, hollering over and over, ‘I’m fixin’ to jump!’ My poor momma didn’t know what I was talking about and I didn’t know how to tell her,” he laughs.

Holliday raced for the woodpile, grabbed an ax, and walked to a nearby slough to cut cane for a crude pole vaulting setup. The first-grader crafted a tiny pole—and the crashing began. “We didn’t have track and field until high school back then,” Holliday recalls. “I didn’t care one bit, because I was going to get ready and learn the basics, right there on the farm.”

Holliday went to the library, checked out a book on pole vaulting, and began a lifetime of learning, always eyeing the pending arrival of high school. The boy from Rochelle grew into a lanky teenager, practicing in cutoff jeans and canvas flats in the farm equipment yard adjacent to the house, where Lois kept a close vigil. He built standards and a crossbar from cane, and laid a portion of the runway with worn peanut picker belts, ensuring he didn’t bog or dig out the takeoff spot. And the pit? Holliday landed on several feet of sawdust that only provided a modicum of cushion, particularly when it scattered.

Pole vaulting practice became part and parcel of Holliday’s life, but Thomas kept priorities in a straight line, teaching Holliday the necessity of order and structure. “Farming was first, pole vaulting was second. Daddy made clear that I could always jump, but only after chores were done. When I’d get out of line as a normal teenager, he’d say, ‘We gonna cut this jumping out if you don’t get right!’ I’d get right fast. You got me?

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“My daddy didn’t play when I did wrong. I remember being a kid and trying to sneak a cigarette. He caught me and made me eat it right there, and I’m talking about chewing on coals and throwing up all over the place,” Holliday laughs. “Fact of business, I never smoked again. No sir.”

Heart of the mother and hands of the father, Holliday was raised right—and when high school arrived, his body began morphing toward a 6’ 170 lb. machine. Once again, Holliday’s life was about to pivot.

Doc Holliday

Attending Wilcox Central High School, Holliday participated in four sports: baseball, basketball, football and track. Leading rusher, ace pitcher, 24 points per game in basketball, but pole vaulting was his forte, and he claimed the state title in the 11th grade, and jumped 12’ 2” on a metal pole in 1960, breaking the state record as a senior.

“Maybe I had a chip on my shoulder. I was raised as a country boy and watched my daddy always trying to pay off the farm, whether there was rain that year or not. Maybe I was trying to prove something. I worked my tail off. I put every ounce of effort into practice, and every bit of focus into game day. It was such a big deal because I realized pole vaulting could pay for my college. God made me to jump around and gave me the talent, and I wasn’t about to waste a drop.”

Following high school, Holliday enrolled at two-year Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, on a two-sport scholarship for basketball and track, where he shattered junior college pole vaulting records, drawing the attention of major university athletic programs with track scholarship offers from Georgia, Florida and Wyoming. “My family is somehow related to the gunfighter Doc Holliday, and I went west,” he chuckles, “but really it was because Wyoming had an indoor track and I hated always fighting the elements, and Wyoming was quite a powerful program in those days.”

Holliday, or “Peach,” as he was affectionately tagged by Wyoming Coach John Walker, once again excelled, setting school records and milestones, reaching the 16’ range, as well as qualifying for the NCAA in both the indoor and outdoor pole vault. “I was always hungry, always ready to give everything, and always wanting to compete. That’s how I am about everything, and not just pole vaulting, because you only get one go-around in this life. A lot of that goes right back to my farming work ethic, no question.”

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Following success at Wyoming and a degree in education, Holliday returned to Georgia and a high school baptism by fire as head basketball coach, head track coach, and football offensive coordinator at Treutlen County—a wonderful community, but a coach’s graveyard. “Everybody told me I wouldn’t be able to win. No, you just don’t tell me I can’t do something. The boys’ basketball team hadn’t had a winning season in a number of years and never been to state. Well, four years later, we made the final four at state. Track was even better and we won a state championship in 1969, the first Treutlen state championship in any sport. Everybody started saying, who is this crazy Cook Holliday? I’m no better or worse than anybody, but I’m a workaholic that gets on it, and stays till the job is done. All of that comes right from farming.”

“We Coach Kids”

Holliday spent the bulk of his coaching career at Winder Barrow High School in Winder, Ga., and even after an attempted retirement, continued coaching at Greater Atlanta Christian. After 51 years of coaching, camps and invitationals, Holliday is in multiple halls of fame, with a stellar coaching resume: six track and field state titles, eight state record holders, and 20 state champions in a single event—pole vaulting.

Often dubbed as the most complicated of all sports, pole vaulting requires the marriage of muscle and speed with physics and gravity, along with a bit of aerial ballet. The requisite speed, strength and dexterity of vaulting demands athletes of the highest caliber, Holliday explains: “I never sugarcoat pole vaulting because people can get hurt really, really bad. First, you can’t have a fear of heights because you’re going upside down, feet over head. Second, if you’re not fast and strong with some level of gymnastic ability, you can’t pole vault.”

“You can slack off for a spell in football or basketball, and nobody knows, but in pole vaulting, you best be 100% focused all the time. Get your steps off and land in the box, get ready to dial 911. This is high-risk and extremely serious injuries happen very fast.”

“Having said all that, I always wanted to tell kids the truth, but I tried so hard to encourage and build. Encouragement is what kids need first before anything. Encouragement matters, and that’s why I like to give it, but even though I’m 77, I still like to receive it. We all do and we all need it.”

“Everybody needs help, no matter their age. I’m blessed with my wife, Sandra, who supports me and is so good to me in so many ways. You just can’t believe how she’s supported me over the years and I couldn’t have done anything without her.”

In the vein of Holliday, Tim Cummings is a 42-year Georgia track coaching legend at Athens Christian and Riverside Military, with 11 state championships and 58 regional championships. Without hesitation, Cummings attributes part of his success to the mentorship of Holliday. “Coach Holliday is not only the best track coach I have ever met and observed, but also the most talented person I have ever seen at knowing how to get the best out of a kid as both an athlete and a person. People know he’s coached hundreds of champions and winners, but what they don’t fully realize is what made all that happen, that he truly cares about kids. Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care, and Cook genuinely cares about his kids and they know it. What Cook taught me was this: We don’t coach track—we coach kids.”

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Holliday helped coach Cumming’s son, Levi, a two-time state champion and two-time runner-up in pole vault, and Cummings’ daughter, Cassidy, the first Georgia girl’s high school state champion in pole vault (2000). “Cook has taught me about coaching and life. He’s driven by a love for young people, and that’s at the heart of what he’s done his entire life. He loves to see young people excel, and so his fuel is someone else’s success.”

Medals and trophies are only reminders of achievement to Holliday, and objects to be appreciated, but not revered, he says. True achievement, he stresses, is his influence on others. It is boilerplate language from the mouths of many, but flows right from the heart when spoken by Holliday: “I’ve got so many medals, and they’re nice, but they’re also not where it’s at. I get more pleasure from somebody just offering me simple thanks or congratulations.”

“The highest compliment I can get is for someone to say, ‘Coach, had it not been for you, I’d have gone bad.’ That’s it; those kinda words are the real gold. I don’t know how many kids I’ve influenced, but I hope it’s a high number.”

High number? Holliday’s hope has long since been eclipsed by reality. Follow him into Walmart, a football game, a restaurant—and watch a steady stream of people, many of whom he can’t place immediately, seek him out in thanks. CJ Amason, executive director for The Foundation for Excellence in Public Education, in Athens, has never met an individual like Holliday. Period. Full-stop. His love of track and field, she explains, is only eclipsed by a deep sense of altruism. “Cook is so grateful to track and field because it’s been an avenue for success and helping others. He’s got a childlike sense of wonder and excitement about life that’s beyond contagious. You just can’t be in a bad mood and be around Cook Holliday.”

“Everybody who comes in contact with him feels like he has been a personal cheerleader. His favorite thing to tell people is, ‘You’ve got po-tential—po-tential.’ He’ll encourage without hype, and be truthful to show you what you can do for the good.”

Fire Still Roaring

A firm believer in body as temple, Holliday adheres to a diet based in loads of vegetables, fish and chicken. “Anything that swims or flies will do, but I raise cattle, and you better believe I love ribs, so I’ll sure cheat every once in a while.”

Holliday has maintained a commitment to top physical conditioning throughout his life, consistently exercising and steadily honing his pole vaulting skills. Mondays and Wednesdays are practice for pole vault, triple jump, and discus; Tuesdays and Thursdays are weight training in the gym; Friday is long distance running. And how does it feel when a 77-year-old body falls into the pit? “Trust me, it’s aches and pains, but you gotta suck it up,” Holliday says. “It hurts, but you stay motivated. The Bible tells me my body is a temple, and I’m going to keep it up as best I can.”

In 2016, after reading about the senior circuit of Masters Track and Field, Holliday couldn’t resist the challenge of competition, and signed up for a meet. In a nutshell, he dominated. “I did quite well,” he chuckles, “and even though I’m trying to run a cattle farm, I thought maybe I should stick with it.”

Translation: Holliday’s fire was still roaring.

He went right back into championship mode, racking up victories and savoring a return to competition. In January 2020, Holliday won the Masters Indoor Southeastern Championship in pole vault, high jump and triple jump, and is currently training for the National Indoor Championship. At 77, even for a man who has taken tremendous care of his physical conditioning, Holliday’s body sometimes rebels: “Right now, I have a left shoulder problem with my rotator cuff, but I’m not taking much medicine. I’m just thankful it’s not my right swing shoulder. Whatever your age, you’ve got to know your body, and know how to deal with injuries.”

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“I’m all in and I’ll give it everything I’ve got. The nationals are coming later this year in North Carolina, and the world championship will be in Toronto.”

The desire to compete is as strong for Holliday in 2020, as it was when he waited for a chance to prove himself on the high school track team. Even today, Holliday often lies awake at night, wrestling in his mind with technique and tiny modifications that might offer the slightest improvement. “I can’t explain why competition is important, but at my age right now, I still give my all—100% effort. All my life I’ve gotten a thrill defying gravity.”

“No Excuses and No Complaints”

Beyond Masters Track and Field, what does tomorrow hold for Holliday? After almost eight decades, he still obsesses over flight at night, his dreams frequently beginning with a burst of speed down the runway. Each dream is a weightless trip into the sky, punctuated by a perfect ride over the top of the bar every time—the lifetime goal of a truly positive person.

However, pole vaulting is emblematic of Holliday’s entire perspective on life, Amason insists: “Cook squeezes every bit of joy and excitement out of every minute of life, and he wants others to do the same. Yes, he loves track and field, but you see that same energy directed toward people, farming, cattle, antique cars or any of his passions. He’s extra everything: fun, energy, passion. Can a person really be fired up 24-7? Yes, if your name is Cook Holliday.”

Cummings concurs, and emphasizes Holliday’s legacy beyond sports: “Cook’s legacy is all of the kids’ lives he’s impacted. Senior Olympics is just icing on a cake he’s already made; the cake is a life of service to young people. Try to be around him and not have your life changed. I love that man and treasure everything that he has passed on to me. There is really nobody like him, and when God made him, He really did throw away the mold. God bless him.”

What is the measure of a man? If character is judged by how a person treats those who offer no advantage or increased station or a means of material gain, then Holliday is a superb standard. “I’ll keep going as long as I can until that North Star shines,” he says. “As people, sometimes it’s hard to figure out why we are the way we are, but it really doesn’t matter your background, because everybody has things they need to prove, and you do that by giving everything to whatever you do in sports or life—100%. No excuses and no complaints. We’re not here in life long, and we have to be an example and make a difference in somebody’s life. You got me?

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