Track coach and pole vault guru Mark Dixon knows a thing or two about clearing obstacles—including cancer.
By Mary Lebeau July 23, 2012
At the edge of the noise of the track meet, the pole vaulters wait their turn. Their event seems removed, even remote, from the starting guns, the shouts of the crowd, the steady beat of sneakers on the track.
Instead, they sit quietly, eying the end of their runway, silently calculating the right combination of speed and strength and spirit that will allow them to fly over the bar and land on the other side.
This past spring, I’ve come to know a bit about pole vaulting on an intimate basis. My middle son, Sean, was competing in his final year as a pole vaulter for West Deptford. Watching him, I’ve learned the different steps taken by a successful vaulter.
First, the approach to the bar. Next, the planting of the pole and the take-off. Then the vaulter has to swing up and extend himself, then turn to face the bar as he flies over it. And then, finally, the fly away, when the vaulter pushes the pole that carried him up away and falls back to earth on the other side.
But, just as much as on that pole, Sean leaned on his coach for direction. The pole may have carried him above the bar, but the way he handled that pole, the path he ran before planting it, and the determination to carry himself over came from the guidance of that coach—one I’m told is known as a pole vaulting guru, but one I only know as my brother, Mark.
Mark Dixon knows personally what it takes to eye a goal, make the run and will yourself to jump high enough to propel yourself to the other side. He knows this because, of course, he has been a pole vaulter himself, a choice he made in high school when his height (or lack thereof) forced him to give up basketball. Joining the track team as a way to stay in shape for football, Mark quickly realized that, as a freshman, he wouldn’t be able to beat the older, more experienced runners on the team.
Until he noticed pole vaulting.
“I was always real competitive, and I wanted to win things,” Mark recalls, “But I was up against Shane Paynter and Darryl Bagby and the senior runners, and I wasn’t going to beat them. I could run fast, but not as fast as them. And I could jump high, but I wasn’t as tall and couldn’t go as high as the kids on the basketball team. Pole vaulting was an event which uses the skills I had.”
Mark enjoyed success throughout high school and college, and went on to coach numerous South Jersey and All State champions for local schools. But this was the first year he was coaching while trying to propel himself over an all new bar—the one set by a cancer diagnosis.
It’s been three months or so since I’ve written this column, and in that time the question most asked of me by those who read the column is this—“How is your brother?”
(Of course, the second most frequently asked question is “How did you meet Springsteen?” But once the person inquiring hears the story, that question inevitably becomes, “How is your brother?” as well.)
In January, Mark was diagnosed with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. In the months since, he has been treated with an equally aggressive chemotherapy regiment administered by Dr. David Henry and his oncology team at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s been poked and prodded, sick and weak, lost all his hair up to and including his eyelashes and, at one point, was told he had tested positive for cancer in his spine.
“We thought we were doing so well,” says Jaclyn, Mark’s wife. Though she says Mark is usually the one who “researches things until doomsday,” she stepped into the coach/advocate role, allowing her husband to focus his energy on clearing this particularly scary bar. “Then they told us a spinal tap had come back positive for cancer cells. I tried to convince him (everything would be fine), but I wasn’t convincing myself. That might have been the most devastating point.”
Devastating because it came at a point when the chemo was ending and it looked like the cancer had been beat. Devastating, also, because it was a mistake. Days later, the couple were notified that there had been an error, that someone had read a report wrong, and that Mark’s spine was actually free of cancer cells.
In January, Mark looked his opponent in the eye and started the run at a speed necessary to clear the bar. By May, his vault was over—and he was landing on the other side. Receiving a clear scan, he stepped up to the bell on the hospital desk. To those in the waiting room, the sound of the bell meant that someone had landed where they wanted to be—in remission. It was a sound of encouragement, a sound of hope.
And in May, my brother rang that bell. Now, he’s planning his return to teaching in September. He’s started practicing with his band again. And he’s looking forward to a return to normalcy for his marriage.
“I look at our wedding pictures, and I can’t wait to get back to being those people again,” he says.
He knows he has a lot to be thankful for. "It's like one minute I'm told I have cancer, and then so quickly it's gone," he says, adding that he credits Jaclyn's advocacy, research and work behind the scenes. "She did everything, and just allowed me to get well," he says.
He also knows he had the support of the teachers and students of West Deptford, some of whom even shaved their heads in solidarity with the long-time teacher and coach.
"The track kids would applaud when I showed up," he recalls, adding, "Everyone was just great."
And, like any good pole vaulter, Mark knows that getting over the bar doesn’t guarantee victory. After the fly over, the vaulter returns to earth. But sometimes the bar falls down after him, and the vault is no good.
“The doctors told me that non-Hodgkin's lymphoma usually returns within the first year, or not at all,” Mark says. “I’m feeling good, my hair is growing back and I’ve had three clear scans. But I’ll still be holding my breath a little, until we’re past that year.”
Right now, the bar is staying in place. And every day, my brother feels a little more secure in leaving that particular obstacle behind. He’s moving ahead, one foot in front of the other.