Remember the story of the college softball player who hit the game-winning homer and blew out her knee as she trotted around first base, but was carried to second, third and home by opposing players — even though she represented the decisive run in a game that determined the championship?
This is not that story.
This is the story of a high school pole vaulter whose successful leap in the last event won the meet and the league championship for her team — until an opposing coach pointed out she should be disqualified for breaking a rule, reversing the outcome so that his team captured victory and the league title.
The girl’s infraction? Wearing a friendship bracelet.
The debatable moment in sportsmanship occurred April 29 in South Pasadena, Calif., where the visiting girls team from Monrovia High was seeking its first-ever Rio Hondo League title against longtime powerhouse South Pasadena High.
With the teams separated by a few points and only the pole vault remaining, Monrovia needed a second-place finish in the event to secure the victory and obtain the title. Both teams gathered around the pole vault pit, loudly celebrating and agonizing over every clearance and miss. Although South Pasadena’s Rachel Ma led at 7-feet-6, two Monrovia girls had cleared 7-feet to give their team the lead.
But South Pasadena’s best vaulter, Robin Laird, had not competed yet. Now she stood at the top of the runway, preparing for her first vault of the long day — an attempt at 7-feet-6 that could win the event, the meet and the league title. The crowd fell silent. A crosswind was blowing. Laird began to sprint down the runway through the gauntlet of spectators, but suddenly stopped; something didn’t feel right.
“I was feeling nervous,” she would later say, “because the whole league championship was on the line.”
Laird walked back to the top of the runway, gained her composure, then took off again. This time everything was in sync. She planted the pole, lifted herself into the air and soared easily over the bar to give her team a 66-61 victory. While half the crowd cheered and the other half groaned, Monrovia coach Mike Knowles reacted by pointing to his wrist and gesturing toward Laird, who was wearing a thin, colorful string bracelet.
“This is my 30th year coaching track,” Knowles said a few days later. “I know a lot of rules and regulations.”
The rule in this case — Section 3, Article 3 of the National Federation of State High School Associations — is clear: “Jewelry shall not be worn by contestants.” So is the penalty, and in the time it takes to read “the competitor is disqualified from the event,” South Pasadena’s win was transformed into a 65-62 victory for Monrovia.
South Pasadena coach P.J. Hernandez was dumbfounded.
“I said, ‘Coach [Knowles], you really want it to come down to this?’ ” Hernandez recalled.
When Laird was informed that she had been disqualified because of her bracelet, she burst into tears.
“It wasn’t so much that I had been disqualified, personally,” Laird said. “It was that I had just lost the league championship that my coaches and teammates had worked so hard for … I had just lost it with this little piece of string on my wrist.”
When the ruling was announced, Monrovia’s athletes and supporters erupted into a reflexive cheer and South Pasadena’s reacted with stunned resentment. But people on both sides mostly retreated into schools of thought, pondering issues of sportsmanship vs. gamesmanship, the letter of the law vs. its spirit and what lesson to derive from what had just happened.
Even Monrovia athletic director Randy Bell struggled to process the outcome. “I don’t think it was anything people were particularly proud of,” he said. “A rule was invoked, and correctly so, but I don’t think anybody was excited to win that way.”
Knowles, 54, is in his first season at Monrovia, but he has won a lot during a career in which he coached Pasadena’s storied Muir High to nine CIF-Southern Section championships, three California state championships and one mythical national championship.
“It’s unfortunate, that’s all I can say,” Knowles said. “It’s unfortunate for the young lady. But you’ve got to teach the kids that rules are rules.”
South Pasadena’s Hernandez doesn’t dispute the technical validity of Knowles’ call, Laird’s obligation to have followed the rule or even the life lesson to be learned by everyone involved. But Hernandez thinks the scope of this teaching moment ought to be broadened to examine when the teaching could have best taken place.
“Mike Knowles was down by the pole vault pit, kind of waiting and sitting there, keeping an eye on our girl, waiting for her to attempt the vault and then make the call, ” said Hernandez. “I am upset that he wanted to win so badly that he would do it that way. We feel sportsmanship is important, too, and that it is in question with him in this situation.”
Knowles denied he was lying in wait.
“I didn’t notice the bracelet until after she cleared the height and walked by,” he insisted. “[I had] a sinking feeling for her. I didn’t want to have to do it. But it’s a real rule — it’s in the book — not something I made up. About 10 years ago, I had a girl who wore an earring in the 4×400 relay and it ended up costing us a CIF title. I feel bad for what happened, but I guarantee you she’ll never wear jewelry during a track meet again.”
Laird, a senior who will be attending — but probably not pole vaulting — the University of Southern California next year, says, “I find it hard to believe” that Knowles did not see the friendship bracelet when she took that aborted trip down the runway. “But I don’t want to say for sure that he saw it,” she said. “It isn’t my place to say that.”
Laird disgustedly tore the friendship bracelet off her wrist after being disqualified, and she concedes that Knowles is right about her mistakenly wearing one again in competition — or maybe ever.
“As of right now, I am not wearing one,” she said. “Although I do still have a tan line on my wrist. That’s my scarlet letter.”