By Marlys Good
At the USA Masters Track and Field Event held in Ames, Iowa, July 11-14, Penny Tolman of Otto put her name into the official books in three events.
Competing in the women’s 50-54 age category, Tolman won the gold medal in the pole vault, clearing 7-2 1/2, a personal best; took third in the 80 hurdles with a personal best of 16.25, qualifying her for All-American status by two-tenths; and capped the meet with a fourth place in the triple jump where her 24 3/4 taping, a personal best, earned her All-American status, also.
Of the three outstanding finishes Penny said, “I’m most proud that I three-stepped all eight hurdles; I’ve been working on that in this race for three years now.”
Not a person to let grass grow under her feet, a week after returning from Ames, Penny was in Billings, Mont., competing in the Big Sky State Games and bettered her marks in all three events.
She set a Big Sky record in the 100 hurdles with a 21.23, two-tenths faster that the record she set last year; taped 24-3 1/2 in the triple jump, another PR, and cleared 8 feet in the pole vault – a new BSSG meet record that qualified her for All-American status. (Penny’s 2018 record in the vault was 6-6.)
Penny was so elated with her finish in the vault, she came home minus her suitcase, which necessitated a return to Billings the next day.
But the high point of the Big Sky meet for Penny was not how she did, but what her daughter Zariah accomplished. An outstanding athlete in high school, Zariah was a record holder in the pole vault and hurdle events. She was sidelined when a motorcycle accident in July 2015 left her with life-threatening injuries.
Now a college senior, Zariah was also at the Big Sky Games, competing in the women’s 19-29 age group where she took first in the pole vault clearing 9-6.
Although Penny accomplished great things, personal bests and earned medals, the real story is what she has overcome to get where she now is.
The mother of three grown children (Zariah and sons Landon and Garrett), Penny is the art/home economics teacher for the Burlington schools; she also coaches cross-country and track.
Just a brief review of what this remarkable young woman has faced and overcome: clinical depression when she turned 13, surgeries in 2006 and 2007; diagnosed with Lupus in 2009, her husband left in 2014. In 2014 she began teaching. “But I had to have completed 20 credits over three summers to get my FCS endorsement,” Penny said. Zariah’s accident was in 2015, and while Penny was in the hospital with her daughter, she was on medication that made her throw up, and she was doing online classes. You could say 2015 was not a good year, as it was also the year she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and divorced.
Lupus is an illness that is the result of an overactive immune system that cannot differentiate between foreign cells and those belonging to the patient. This results in systemic inflammation in and outside the body. Symptoms vary widely and can include extreme fatigue, joint pain, rash, hair loss, anxiety, depression and fever.
Fast forward to the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). According to data, RA happens when your body’s defenses — your immune system — targets your joint linings; it affects joints on both sides of the body, such as both hands, both wrists or both knees. It is a lifelong condition that causes pain, swelling and inflammation. It can also affect the heart, lungs and more.
She recalls days when the pain was so bad, “when I could barely get out of bed, when my legs didn’t want to work.”
That’s when courage and faith took over. “I decided that I was not going to let it (RA) beat me.” Penny had always been active – always into physical exercise, competing, etc., so with proper medication helping control the pain, she got up and out, and began a regime that would exhaust most (normal) women and got active. “Exercise is actually good (therapy),” she shared.
Five days of exercise – usually Monday through Friday – include a day of high intensity – speed, power; a distance run, generally four miles for endurance; a high intensity indoor routine of 40-60-minute workout on her elliptical machine; Thursday depends on “how I read my body. It might be doing gardening,” she shared. Friday it’s back to the track for some speed workouts –
running 200 and 400 sprints and her “track camp” where she invites friends to join her, “coaching” them.
Saturdays and Sundays are days of recovery and rest, again depending on how she “reads her body.”
Penny admits that sometimes she has to overcome the mental issues of the daily ordeals. Every day is painful, she said. “Some days I don’t feel I can go out; I have to talk myself through it. I tell myself ‘You can do this. You’re a fighter,’ and it becomes worth it every time. Sometimes I was so depressed and felt so bad that I just prayed I would get through the next minute.”
Getting back to present day, she has always competed in jumps and hurdles, but three years ago she decided to try her hand at pole vaulting.
She called on her daughter to coach her.
“I told her that I had coached her, so it was her turn to coach me; teach me to pole vault.
“That first summer I was scared to death. I thought ‘What am I doing?’
She laughs at her first attempts. The falls, the failed tries, the bruised and sore knees. “I finally got out a pair of volleyball knee pads,” which brought more laughter thinking of how she looked knowing you don’t often (maybe never) see a pole-vaulter wearing knee pads. But it worked. After a rough start it got so much better. Now she loves vaulting – and has been getting better and better all the time.
What is up next for this determined young woman? The Senior Olympics in Cheyenne in August – where she’ll pole vault and long jump, so chalk up another event.
Life is good for Penny. “My dreams of being a real national athlete and a happy wife is a team effort. My husband Sam Allred of 50 days now encourages me and helps me plan and make trip arrangements. I feel like I am flying every day with his kindness. It allows me the time and energy to spend so many hours every day doing the technical training my events require.
“I have witnessed many miraculous things in this journey. I know that love is what matters most and should fill every second of our day. Love heals us and love lets us fly again. I never take even the smallest moment for granted. I embrace it because we never know when that will be all we had. Marrying and being loved by Sam this summer is proof that love and support gives us wings.”
Penny said her parents and her three kids have been very supportive “and Landon, especially, supported his younger siblings.”
Sam, who clued us into his wife’s achievements, said he and Penny had been friends since the fourth grade. “I think it would be nice for locals to see that this girl of small town Wyoming went to the USA Masters Track and Field National event. She contended with national and world record holders in each of her events. She is the kindest person I know and deserves to be recognized for her hard work. She put Wyoming in the spotlight for a moment at nationals.”
Penny is a role model; a person that everyone, young, old, male or female, can look up to and see that hard work, dedication, courage and faith pay off.