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Santa Clara Centenarian Makes Sports History

Santa Clara Centenarian Makes Sports History

Santa Clara resident Don Pellmann is the newly reigning face of Senior Olympics around the world. Very senior Olympics. Pellmann turned 100 August 12th.

Competing September 20 at San Diego Mesa College in almost 100-degree heat, Pellmann—the oldest person ever to enter the San Diego Senior Olympics—brought home five gold medals and made sports history by setting five world records for his elite age group.

Named USA Track and Field Athlete of the Week, Pellmann has made the news world wide—from New York to London to Japan, where his 100-meter dash in 26.99 seconds broke the 2010 world record (29.83) of Hidekichi Miyazaki.


Pellmann also broke existing world records for his age category in shot put with a throw of 21 feet 6-1/4 inches and in discus with a throw of 48 feet 9 inches. He became the first 100-year-old long jumper, covering a distance of 5 feet 10 inches, and the first to clear an official height—2 feet 11-1/2 inches—in the high jump.

In the hot and heady midst of these successes, Pellmann nonetheless was disappointed that he had lost the pole vault. Though he had succeeded in warm-ups, he couldn’t clear the bar, set at 3 feet 1-3/4 inches, in the three tries allowed.

“I thought I was in better shape,” he was overheard to say. “I’m sorry about that pole-vault disaster.”

“Being a machinist, my dad was a perfectionist,” explains his son Ned Pellmann in Wisconsin, the oldest of three sons. “He was always striving to have us do things the right way, saying, ‘If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.'”

A Wisconsin native of German ancestry, Pellmann has done a lot right in 100 years, including building his own home.

“I learned all the trades as I went along. I learned the hard way,” he says.

He worked for 25 years at AC Electronics, a division of General Motors, retiring in 1972. He wanted to enlist in the military during WWII but was deferred because his skills were needed in the manufacture of airplane parts.

Starting as an hourly employee, Pellmann worked his way up to superintendant of the model shop tool room that provided parts for Apollo’s guidance and navigation systems and considers involvement with NASA’s Project Apollo “the highpoint of my career.”

Favorite memories include traveling around the world, fishing in Canada, rafting the Colorado River and skydiving for his 90th birthday

But it was in 1985 at the age of 70, that Pellmann took Ned’s advice and began competing in master track events. To date, he has won 895 medals (all gold but five) and participated in 127 meets.

“I wanted to do it to keep physically fit and enjoyed participating with people in my age bracket,” says Pellmann, who was on the track team at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse for a year. But because of the Depression, he had to leave school to work.

“He’s set world records at various age groups. And being able to say, ‘I’ve done something no one else in the world has done,’ is quite spectacular,” says Ned.

“I thought it was good when I won medals at 90 and 95, but [the media] didn’t notice me until I was 100,” says Pellmann.

Santa Clara Centenarian Makes Sports History

The key to his Senior Olympics success?

“Eat sensibly, keep your weight down, and exercise every time you get a chance,” he advises.

A fit 5 foot 11 inches and 175 pounds, Pellmann does something active every day—sit ups, knee bends, a jog around his neighborhood or a round-trip 1.5-mile walk to Costco.

“Pushing yourself away from the table is the best exercise. I don’t believe in the clean plate club,” he says. “I’m a great guy with soup. And I like dark chocolate & the world’s greatest food.”

“Don never ceases to amaze me. I think he has shown the world what is possible,” says Santa Clara resident Lee Deras, who met Pellmann and Marjoree, his 91-year-old wife of 68 years, when they lived at Valley Village Retirement Community, where she works as a nurse.

“Don would often happen by with an interesting article to read. He is an avid reader, and would drop off the SF Chronicle each morning, but only after he completed the entire crossword puzzle. We never found an error!” says Deras.

“I’m well into my second century,” says Pellmann, who came to California 15 years ago to live near sons Jay and Jim Pellmann in San Jose. “I’d like to go sky diving one more time.”

First, however, he plans to look himself up on Wikipedia, which he was tickled to learn already has an entry about him.

“You can’t live a normal life without a computer,” he says. “I email daily and use it for an encyclopedia.”

Photo of Don Pellmann at the San Diego Olympics September 20 is courtesy of Chris Stone /


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