TALLAHASSEE – All young athletes, who dream to become the best in their chosen sport, long for a practice facility in their backyard to better hone their craft.

For most, it remains a dream as they go back and forth to a local facility on a regular basis.

Not for Apopka’s most prominent pole vaulter, Joe Johnston.

For years, Joe and many other potential and prominent pole vaulters came by to visit, “The Joe Dome.”

“It was just a pole barn that was covered with a roof and a 20 to 50-foot runway,” said Johnston.  “We would have to deal with the weather and critters because other than the roof, it was outdoors.”

In a 2010 Growing Bolder feature about Joe and his playground, when asked several times about how the details of how the Dome was built and who came up with the ideas, his answer was the same. “Joe did.  Pretty much by himself.”

Fast forward to 2019 and the Joe Dome has taken on a new look thanks to a former student and pole vaulting protégé of Joe’s who went to Apopka High School, Nicky Curly.

After two years of renovation, the Joe Dome is now a 5,000 square foot, completely enclosed facility behind his home in Apopka.

“Yeah, it’s a steel building all enclosed with a brand-new pit and standards,” said Gary Perigo, a senior athlete from Clermont, who started in the Florida Senior Games as a golfer, has taken up archery and is now moving into track and field events.  “It’s really super nice. But you got used to the old pole barn and there was something nostalgic about it. There’s a lot of extreme stuff in the old place.  Luckily he saved it and the old pole barn is right next to new building.”

However, during the two years of renovation, Johnston was unable to keep up his regular training regimen and competition schedule.  He’s calling his trip to the 2019 National Senior Games, “a comeback.”

Johnston is the National Senior Games record holder in the pole vault for the 65-69 and 70-74 age groups.  At the 2019 Games, he will be vaulting in the 75-79 age group in an effort to reach the current record of 10 feet.  His record in the 65-69 age group of 11 feet, was set in 2011 and his mark in the 70-74 age group of 10 feet, six inches came in 2013. Johnston will also compete in the high jump in Albuquerque.

To qualify for the National Senior Games, Johnston planted the pole and vaulted 7 feet, 11.67 inches to tie for first place with his friend and fellow competitor, Don Isett, from Anna, Texas.  The two will meet up again on the runway at the University of New Mexico.

Johnston has been pole vaulting in the Florida Senior Games since 2000 and is the record holder in the 55-59, 65-69 and 75-79 age groups.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing a lot of guys in my age group and in different age groups,” Johnston said.  “At national meets like this, it’s good to see who’s there and how they’re doing.”

Besides providing the backyard playground for himself and others, Johnston provides coaching assistance to “some of the guys who come around every now and then,” like Perigo and area high school school athletes.

“He’s a phenomenal coach and we do a lot with video,” said Perigo, who is also the director of the Lake Senior Games.  “We talk about the physics of pole vaulting.  You have to run this fast and put the pole down here to go a certain height.  If you want to go higher, you’ve got to go back this far and run this fast.  It’s kind of scary, running 50 feet, putting that pole in the ground, you go from there.  That’s the thrill, being upside down and in space.”

These day’s there are quite a variety of sports training facilities offering all kinds of opportunities for athletes to excel.  But if an athlete’s dream is being upside down and in space, Joe Johnston’s got you covered.