EUGENE, Ore. — Even as he attempted to claim the pole vault title at the national collegiate championships in Eugene, Lawrence Johnson of Tennessee had his sights set on something higher. There would be more important heights to negotiate this summer, more urgent marks to attempt to break, like the world record and a long malaise among American jumpers.

At a small meet last Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn., Johnson jumped 19 feet 7.5 inches, eclipsing Scott Huffman’s national record by a half-inch. It was an “if-no-one-hears-a-tree-fall” kind of jump. By Johnson’s estimate, 20 people were in the stands, about one for each foot that he cleared.

“I wanted to put a statement out there that I feel like I’m a force to be reckoned with,” Johnson said.

He is 22, a senior, and at 6-foot-1-inch and 185 pounds, he possesses a self-assurance devoid of pretense or ostentation. He wants to break the world record of 20-1.75, set two years ago by Sergei Bubka of Ukraine. He wants to be the first man to jump 21 feet, and the first black vaulter to make the U.S. Olympic team. It is his “finest intention” to win the gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. He has other records in mind, the ones he wants to make as a singer/songwriter with the rhythm and blues group Soja.

He ticks off this wish list with such tranquil confidence that the effect is to make these accomplishments seem inevitable.

“The Americans tend to think that Bubka and some of the other Russians are unbeatable,” Johnson said. “My first goal is to win. If I don’t believe I can win, there’s no reason to compete.”

He has never outjumped Bubka, who has a world-leading jump of 19-9 this year and who has dominated the pole vault the way Michael Jordan has dominated professional basketball. In fact, Johnson has yet to claim his first top-10 world ranking. But that didn’t prevent him from raising the bar to 20-6 for one attempt last Saturday.

He bailed out, he said with characteristic assurance, not because he was afraid that he was going to miss, but because he was afraid he might not.

“That’s a big way to break the American and world record,” Johnson said. “I didn’t feel like it was something I was ready to do or handle at the present time.”

He will draw more energy from a larger crowd, which he will certainly get if he qualifies in June for the Summer Games in Atlanta, where 83,100 spectators will make their sweaty presence felt. The more people in the stands, the better, Johnson said.

“Americans are just dying for a 20-footer,” said Dan O’Brien, the world champion decathlete. “A 20-footer would be bigger than Carl Lewis. The Olympics. He and Bubka, the last two guys. Twenty feet. That’s Wheaties stuff right there.”

After winning every Olympic pole vault from 1896 to 1968 (other than in the unofficial games in Athens in 1906), the Americans have not won a gold medal since Bob Seagren 28 years ago in Mexico City. In fact, the United States failed to put anyone on the medal stand at the past two Olympics after picking up the silver and bronze at the Soviet-free 1984 Los Angeles Games.

While vaulters from France and the former Soviet Union rigorously apply the science of pendulum mechanics and physics to the event, many American coaches “talk in vague, amorphous concepts, almost as if it’s a Zen thing,” said Brooks Johnson, the track and field coach at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and a two-time Olympic coach.

“I think they’ve started to apologize for mediocrity,” Johnson said.

It is Lawrence Johnson’s determination to end this mediocrity. As soon as possible.

“He wants to own every vaulting record — yesterday,” said Bill Webb, his coach at Tennessee.

Along with a calm fearlessness, efficiency and studiousness, Johnson brings superb athleticism to the vault. He has sprinted 100 meters in 11.23 seconds, run the 110-meter hurdles in 14.39, long-jumped 23 feet 10 inches and high-jumped 6-7. He won the Southeastern Conference decathlon title as a freshman and finished second this year.

Two years ago, he landed awkwardly after a jump, suffered two detached tendons in his left foot and wondered whether he would even be able to compete again as a weekend warrior. He returned last year, however, to win the National Collegiate Athletic Association title with a jump of 18-8.5. He makes even greater cultural leaps as one of the country’s few black vaulters.

Poles can cost more than $300 and landing pits can run $7,000 to $10,000, Brooks Johnson said. “You have to get two or three poles, that’s a thousand dollars,” he said. “Some inner-city track and field programs, a thousand bucks is the whole budget.”

At Lake Taylor High School in Norfolk, Va., Lawrence Johnson said, the predominantly black school could afford only one training pole. Later, he transferred to the suburban Great Bridge High in nearby Chesapeake and jumped 17-6. He stuck with the pole vault, he said, even though some black athletes suggested he try sprinting or hurdling.

“There may be a stereotype that blacks don’t generally pole vault, so they just shy away from it for that reason,” Johnson said.

He hopes his success will attract other black athletes to vaulting.

“I think it would be a great thing,” he said. “Competition is always a good thing. If another Lawrence Johnson would come along and start pushing me, it would help me do a lot better.”

He has already done better than any other American.

by: Jere Longman


Lawrence Johnson
Lawrence Johnson


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