Bloom Township High School helped create the mettle of the man.
Now the man’s medal, won with the help of Bruce Jenner, may help Bloom.
Jan Johnson, the 1972 Olympic bronze medalist in the pole vault, is hosting a clinic Aug. 14-15 at the Chicago Heights to promote awareness of the Bloom Alumni Athletic Association. The 1968 Bloom graduate and state pole vault champion is bringing with him, for the first time, the medal he won in the controversial Olympic competition in Munich, Germany.
“When I came back from the Olympics, I went straight back to Tuscaloosa,” Johnson, then a student at the University of Alabama, said. “And later that fall, when they named the gym for me over at Rickover School (in Sauk Village), I didn’t bring it with me.”
Standing in front of Bloom on a windswept day, the 64-year-old Johnson nodded toward its art deco facade and said, “Without this place, none of my stuff happens.”
His stuff includes a then-world record indoor vault of 17 feet, 7 inches in 1970, three NCAA titles, a pole vaulting camp in Southern California and travels around the world, frequently in the company of legendary distance runner Steve Prefontaine.
“One time, Pre came to hang out with me in Chicago for a few days between meets,” Johnson said. “I took him to see Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes at the Valley View Young Adult Club on Route 30 in New Lenox — August 1971.”
It’s that attention to detail that Johnson is putting into a memoir, the current draft of which sits at more than 500 pages. Bloom ripples throughout the work.
“Where I grew up out on Steger Road, I didn’t see a lot of black people,” he said. “At Bloom, it was a different story — and it was awesome. It was about being a Trojan. It wasn’t about race or different cultures. It was all of us together.
“Then I go away to college, and I encounter racism, anti-Vietnam War protests, politics …”
The last of those played a featured role in the Munich Games as well.
Johnson arrived as one of the favorites in the pole vault, along with fellow American Bob Seagren and Sweden’s Kjell Isaksson. All three used the Cata-Pole, a new product eschewed by East Germany’s top vaulter, Wolfgang Nordwig. East Germany protested the use of the Cata-Pole.
“In an act of pure politics, they banned our poles,” Johnson said. “I’m standing there an hour before the Olympic prelims, and I have to go running back to the Olympic Village to borrow a pole.”
Waving a hand toward Franciscan St. James Health Hospital, about three-quarters of a mile away, he said, “It was like running to the hospital and back — and all the way back, running through a crowd with a 14-foot pole over your head.”
Jenner’s 14-foot pole.
“Bruce, as a decathlete, had a pole,” Johnson said. “I made the finals on a borrowed pole. … Then in the finals, I used two different borrowed poles. It was a miracle I won a medal.”
Johnson, who coached Jenner in the pole vault for a couple of years, still coaches, running the Sky Jumpers Vertical Sports Club. He hosts camps around the country, including one at Olivet Nazarene University each winter.
But Bloom’s clinic, he said, will be something special.
After discovering that he had an affinity for vaulting by launching himself with a pitchfork into haystacks on the family farm, Johnson picked up techniques from legendary Bloom coach George Hamlin. Between Hamlin and his protege, Don Slota, the Trojans produced 16 state finalists in the pole vault from 1955-89, including six state champs from 1968-80.
“I’ll still teach George Hamlin’s principles today, 50 years later,” Johnson said.
Those were not the only principles he learned at Bloom. The others fuel his desire to help others.
Sky Jumpers operates out of his back yard in Atascadero, Calif., “just like back at the farm,” Johnson said. There, he has coached several world-class vaulters, including 1997 World Championships bronze medalist Dean Starkey and Johnson’s daughter, Chelsea, who was second in the 2009 Worlds.
Johnson is also chairman of the National Pole Vault Safety Committee and co-director of the National Pole Vault Coaches certification program. He’s on the subcommittee on pole vault safety for ASTM International, a standards organization, and helped develop the pole vault box collar that has been mandated by the NCAA and National Federation of State High School Associations.
Johnson’s clinic is the first of two planned events for the benefit of the athletic association. Formed this year as an offshoot of the Bloom Alumni Association and what had been known as the Bloom Basketball Boosters, the athletic association promotes a mission “to provide fundraising support, alumni relations activities and community relations events; all designed to support BTHS athletics and efforts to increase academic achievement.”
“Working hard, trying to do your best — that’s what Bloom Township High School teaches you,” Johnson said. “And that’s the best lesson.
“This clinic needs to bring public attention to how important sports and after-school activities are to a community. All that time these coaches spend working with kids after 3 o’clock and at the meets on Saturday teaches a work ethic, a hopefulness, a method for success.
“If you don’t have kids feeling like they have a chance to be successful, to be productive and raise a family, how does society get better?”
The clinic will also feature wrestling, basketball and volleyball instruction, all featuring Bloom alumni. Another event, planned for Aug. 22-24, will recap Illinois sports history through the eyes of local sports journalists, including former Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Downey and WSCR-AM host Terry Boers, both Bloom graduates.