John Poché shows off his track and field medals displayed in his living room. (Special to the American Press)
Last Modified: Monday, July 28, 2014 1:30 PM
John Poché long-jumped into pits of sawdust as a kid growing up in New Orleans. More than seven decades later, he is still going strong, competing as a Senior Olympian in track and field.
Poché, 85, recently won two national championships at the USA Track & Field Masters national championships, winning the shot put and weight throw and finishing second in the hammer and discus. He competes in six events and has won national championships in five of them.
“I started here in the Southwest District about 21 years ago,” he said. “I tried everything. I was swimming, running and everything else. I found out if you won in district, you qualified for the state games. What I really liked was the triathlon, but they did not have that here.”
The sounds of laughter convinced Poché to try some new events.
“The guys that were throwing were having the most fun, they were laughing and joking and cutting up,” he said. “I went to the McNeese library and got two books on shot putting. I bought a shot put, threw it, and won the state championship. They were throwing the discus and javelin. I bought a javelin and did pretty good. The first time I tried to throw the discus I came in dead last, I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Poché soon advanced to the point where he could compete with the nation’s best in his age group.
“I qualified for my first national games in 1999,” he said.
“I came out eighth in shot put and eighth in javelin. I came home happy. Now I have gotten kind of spoiled. In 2009, I won national championships in the hammer throw and high jump. I was third in shot put. Last year in Cleveland I came back from the Senior Olympics with three national championships and a second in the shot put.
“Last week, I went to the USA Track and Field Masters championships at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I was hoping to set a new American record in the weight, which is about 40 feet. I had been throwing 39. I didn’t come close to the record but won the event. The hammer, I should have won by a mile, I set the national record at the Senior Olympics last year by 15 feet. I couldn’t get the footwork right.”
Poché stays sharp by working out on his own and at McNeese, where he gets tips from coaches and athletes.
“I usually practice about five days a week when I have meets coming up,” he said.
“Most of the time I go to McNeese. I have been a fan and supporter of McNeese track since the 1960s when Bob Hayes came in. I have always enjoyed being around them and the friendships and being around the kids. I inspire them and they inspire me. It is so much fun, especially when you see them do well. Like (La’Shantena) Rounds, who finished fourth in the United States then got a degree in mechanical engineering. One of the guys that was giving me pointers was the number one thrower in the hammer and weight and he got a degree in mechanical engineering. I got a degree in mechanical engineering from LSU way back in 1949. I usually work with the McNeese coaches. Each one of them will be able to pick out what I am doing wrong and give me a pointer.”
In 2009 Poché was elected into the Louisiana Senior Olympics Hall of Fame. His love for track and field started in elementary school.
“I grew up in a tight-knit neighborhood in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans,” he said. “There was one vacant lot in the neighborhood. We lived not too far from a sawmill that would give you the sawdust for free. We would get oyster sacks and fill them up with sawdust. We dug a pit for long-jumping when we were about 8 or 10 years old. We made contraption for pole-vaulting. That is how it started, then I did a little running in high school at Holy Cross. I practiced with the school track team but never got a letter.”
As an adult, Poché briefly entered the game of politics.
“I served two terms on the Lake Charles City Council, I was elected in 1965 and re-elected in 1969,” he said. “I was a home builder back then and was president of the local and state associations, then became a life director of the national association. I got to go around the nation speaking to builders about getting involved in politics. I’m an LSU fan, election night was like going to Tiger Stadium for a Saturday night football game. It has changed a lot, there is too much money involved and it has gotten nasty, everyone criticizes everybody.”
Poché does not sweat his results too much.
“It is fun and gives you a reason to stay in shape,” he aid. “You get to meet a lot of nice people. It is not cutthroat competition, everyone cheers each other on. My favorite is when we have all five throwing events (shot put, discus, javelin, weight and hammer) in a pentathlon. We used to have three of those a year in Louisiana. In those you don’t have to be outstanding in each one. I try to work on all five events.”
Warren Arceneaux writes a weekly column on interesting people in Southwest Louisiana each Monday. Have a story idea about someone in Southwest Louisiana? Call him weekdays at 494-4087. E-mail him at email@example.com.