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She Has Her Dad's Height

UCLA's Johnson, who has cleared 15 feet in the pole vault, takes after her Olympian father.

April 09, 2004|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

Making the U.S. Olympic team this year was once as foreign a concept to Chelsea Johnson as the discipline in which she now excels.

Little did the UCLA sophomore know that the ability to propel herself through the air to record heights was dormant inside as her mind was focused on other exploits.

"I mostly played volleyball and soccer growing up," Johnson said. "In track, I mostly ran the hurdles. I never really thought about the pole vault."

Even with the daily presence of a father who was an Olympic medalist in that event, Johnson didn't practice it regularly until her senior year in high school. She has been soaring ever since.

Johnson may have to make travel plans for Athens after a string of record-setting marks in the last few weeks. At a home meet March 6, the Atascadero native set a new NCAA outdoor record with a mark of 14 feet 9 inches, topping the mark of 14-8 set by Becky Holliday of Oregon last year.

On March 27 at the Stanford Invitational, Johnson became the first female collegian to clear 15 feet. Last weekend, she cleared 14-9 to easily win the event at the Texas Relays. On Saturday, she will compete in the Rafer Johnson-Jackie Joyner-Kersee Invitational meet at UCLA's Drake Stadium.

Johnson will be the favorite at the NCAA championships in June but the run of impressive marks has led to goals on a larger scale. As far as the Olympics, the 20-year-old had originally set her sights on 2008.

"At the start of the year, I hadn't really thought about the Olympics," she said. "It was in the back of my mind. I always thought, 'If it happens, it'll happen.' "

Anthony Curran, who has been UCLA's vault coach for 21 years, said he believes it will happen sooner than later. He sees an athlete with limitless potential and the drive to succeed.

"The possibilities are endless," Curran said. "I saw her jump 13-6 in high school and she was doing a lot of things wrong. But you could just see the speed she had coming down the ramp.

"She's a tremendous athlete. In volleyball, she was the outside hitter. In soccer, she ran up front as the forward."

The Johnson household is familiar with athletic success. Her father, Jan, was a one-time national pole vault record holder who won a bronze medal in the 1972 Olympics. Her mother, Jani, competed in the 5,000 meters at the 1988 Olympic trials and is an accomplished road racer.

Chelsea's brother, Clay, is an up-and-coming vaulter at Atascadero High. But Jan never expected Chelsea to follow in his footsteps. She would politely turn down suggestions year after year to try the discipline and work out in his vault camps.

"She was a really, really good soccer player," Jan said. "She was in the Olympic Development Program when she was 12 and 13, and I thought she was going to play soccer someplace like UCLA or Stanford. But because she elected not to play club soccer, no major school wanted to recruit her."

Jan Johnson would not push the issue even though he thought Chelsea's natural athleticism would play into vaulting. A highly regarded coach who has run camps locally and nationally for 30 years, Jan instead put his focus on his other pupils and watched his only girl thrive in other sports.

"I was working on the roof of our barn one day when she was a freshman in high school," he said. "Chelsea was just starting track and field, and she came up to me and said, 'You know, Dad, I want to try pole vaulting today. I was up on a ladder and I nearly fell off it.

"So that day, she tried it out for about 45 minutes and then I never saw her again [on it] and I never asked her again."

As she saw the options of playing soccer at a major university begin to narrow, Johnson revisited the idea of trying the pole vault as her final year in high school began. This time she was serious.

After only a few tries, she was clearing 10 feet in January 2002. As the months progressed she was up to 11 feet, then 12. Johnson then announced her arrival in the event when she cleared 13-4 at the Mt. San Antonio College Relays in April, then the second-best outdoor mark by a high school girl.

Johnson finished 2002 with a high mark of 13-6, set at the Golden West Invitational a week after winning the state meet. Two years later, she's on the cusp of becoming the next great U.S. vaulter.

"She's just one of those athletes that likes to excel," Curran said. "It's been an awesome ride."

The recent success has fueled the competitive part of Johnson's personality.

"I feel like I'm just touching my ability," she said. "There are so many things I need to work on. I feel like I can do this another 10 years."

As she reached the 15-foot barrier, Johnson joined her idol Stacy Dragila, Mary Sauer, Mel Mueller and Kellie Suttle as the only U.S. women to have accomplished the feat. All except for Mueller, who recently announced her retirement, figure to be her main competitors in July at the U.S. Olympic trials in Sacramento.

If she does qualify, Jan will be in the stands reliving some old memories and creating some new ones with his daughter.

"It could be an expensive August," he said with a laugh, "and I'd be happy to pay for it."

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