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Monday, February 17, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports

Steve Christilaw: Athletic records are for us to emulate

One thing you learn early on about sports is that the box score never, ever tells you the whole story. Neither does the record book.

In fact, when it comes right down to it, it’s only a hint of a bigger, better story if you take some time and dig it out.

Curious about what some of the oldest school track and field records in the area were, I sent out an email to all of the high school coaches, both boys and girls.

Dori Whitford, the Mead girls track coach, emailed me right back.

“Funny you are looking into this,” she wrote. “Good timing because I may have the oldest record on the books for girls.”

She mentioned the outline of the story of Becky Nelson, now Clark, who high jumped 5-feet-8 in 1968 and how that mark got lost for a decade or so.

What I am going to tell you is a story of how that record happened in the first place.

Girls sports in the 1960s was nothing like they are today. They weren’t overlooked so much as they were ignored.

“When I got the job at Mead after I graduated, my friends told me they thought seriously about sending me a big bouquet of flowers to tell me how sorry they felt for me,” Clark’s track coach, Joanne Christopher explained. “Going to Mead was like going to Podunkville.”

Christopher was a fresh, young physical education teacher who was willing to coach three sports – for which she was paid a coaching stipend in the gigantic sum of $300. For the whole year.

She said when she got to the school, she checked out the girls equipment room. It was also the furnace room, and it contained a collection of field hockey sticks, shin guards and some deflated soccer, basketball and volleyballs. The heat, she explained, deflates them.

Becky Clark wasn’t waiting around for someone to come teach her the high jump.

With some help from her father, himself a former college track athlete, she trained by running the hills around the family acreage and strengthened her legs by running up and down sand dunes on the property.

She and her father built her very own high jump pit in her backyard. She taught herself the Western Roll, and when she saw Dick Fosbury, then a high jumper at Oregon State University, going over the bar backwards, she got a tape of him and studied it.

She taught herself the Fosbury Flop at a time when there were to her knowledge just three high jumpers in North America using the technique: Fosbury, who would later in 1968 win the NCAA Championship and the Olympic Gold Medal in Mexico City, a young high jumper from British Columbia named Debbie Brill, and a self-taught high school girl in her backyard.

In fact, Brill was developing her own backward jumping style before Fosbury caught national attention. In Canada it’s often called the Brill Bend and she’s held the national record since 1969, with a personal best jump of 6 feet, 5 inches.

Clark used both jumping styles, depending on what landing pit was available. The Flop was too dangerous to use on the sawdust pits that were still used at some schools, she said. If there was a foam pit, she’d Flop.

Clark cleared 5-8 as a high school senior and went to the Olympic trials after graduation.

“I thought I had a chance to make the Olympic team,” she said. “The gold medal jump that year was 5-10, and the silver and bronze were 5-9. But I got so sick when I got there and spent the night before throwing up. I just couldn’t compete.”

At Eastern Washington State College she won the high jump title at the 1971 National Intercollegiate Track and Field Championships for Women. She held the school record there for 14 years by clearing 5-6 1/2.

Clark competed for the University of Washington for a year while earning her degree in physical therapy, returning to Spokane to open Apex Physical Therapy in Spokane and Cheney. She began volunteering her services at her alma mater and even coached the school’s track team for three seasons before the demands of her profession became too much to continue.

She continued to help treat injuries and tape ankles for 25 years for both the boys and girls teams at Mead.

“When the boys coaches asked me to help them, I always told them I would but that the girls teams got me first,” Clark said.

But she wasn’t done with high jumping. Over the years she worked privately with a number of jumpers, helping them hone their technique and seeing very good results.

But there was one jumper she was reluctant to work with at first.

“My son wanted me to teach him how to high jump when he was in grade school,” Clark recalled. “I told him, ‘No, you need to go play other sports. I’ll teach you how to high jump when you get to middle school.’

“I didn’t want him to learn bad technique and I wanted to be the one to teach him. But I wanted him to have other experiences.”

By the time he graduated, Casey Clark owned the Mead school record with a personal best jump of 7- 1/2, and he went on to jump at Arizona State.

“I’ve been told that we’re the only mother-son combination to each hold the same record in the same event at the same school,” she said.

You should be able to see both records on display at Mead. Unique as these records are, there should be a photo of mother and son together to commemorate the accomplishments.

But, sadly, you can’t.

For some reason the school declined to put its display of school records from track and field back up after the high school was remodeled. The company line is that it would be unfair to other sports and activities.

Interestingly they aren’t nearly as concerned about hanging championship banners from the rafters.

I’m sorry, but that feels incredibly short-sighted.

“When I heard about that I called around to other high schools,” Christopher said. “The only ones who don’t do it are Rogers and Mead.”

Yup, the school that gave us Gerry Lindgren doesn’t have a spot where you can see his school records. Pirates athletic director Aaron Brecek said the school never has had such a display, but he’s working to correct that situation. He hopes to have one ready for next year’s track season.

Becky Clark’s is just one of many stories hinted at by athletic accomplishment, and they all should be recognized, if not celebrated. They shouldn’t just be told, they should be shouted from the rafters – “This, kids, is what you can do if you give yourself a chance!”

That’s Christopher’s advice.

“I didn’t teach these girls,” she said. “I knew enough to help them a little, but I didn’t have the ability to really teach them the sport.

“The best I could do was give them an opportunity. I could provide them a space to compete. I just gave them a chance.”

As legacies go, Becky Clark and Joanne Christopher have done far more than their part to help future generations.

The rest of us just need to follow in their footsteps.

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