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World High Jump Leader Taking It In Stride

If you’ve never heard of Hollis Conway, it’s time you meet him because he’s the only athlete in NCAA history to jump higher than Dusty Jonas, Nebraska’s senior track and field captain who leaped a Big 12 record 7-8 ¾ last Sunday in Boulder, Colo.

Jonas’ 2.36-meter mark, the best in the world so far this year, trails only two jumps by Conway on the all-time NCAA high jump chart.  Conway had jumps of 7-9 ¾ (2.38 meters) and 7-9 ¼ (2.37) less than three months apart in 1989 while competing for Southwestern Louisiana, now known as Louisiana Lafayette.

Jonas met Conway this spring shortly before he spoke at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes banquet in Lincoln. Monday, as he viewed the bar at 2.36 meters at Nebraska’s Ed Weir track, he had a hard time visualizing flying over it himself, let alone Conway.

Conway, you see, is only six-feet tall, and that means he propelled himself almost two feet higher than he stands when he recorded a personal best of 7-10 ½ in 1991.

Jonas shakes his head when he hears what a high jumping machine Conway was before he wrote a book and became a popular speaker. Conway had 76 jumps over 7-6 ½ and 29 jumps over 7-8. He also set three American records, two NCAA records and won 10 USA championships and three NCAA titles. He is the only American high jumper in history to win two Olympic medals – a silver in Seoul in 1988 and a bronze in Barcelona in 1992.

The history lesson provides perspective for a Nebraska student-athlete who has always knocked on high jumping’s big door, but never really saw it open

 


























































































Pepin and Jonas measure 7-8 3/4 up close.

up until roughly two months ago.

 

One Small Step, Then One Giant Leap for Worldwide Respect

A seven-time All-American at Nebraska, Jonas has world-class skills, but he’d never won a conference or an NCAA individual title. His life began to change March 18th when he won his first NCAA title with a leap of 7-7 in Fayetteville, Ark. For Jonas, that was one small step for national respect. His first-ever Big 12 championship last weekend became one giant leap for worldwide respectability. 

To the surprise of almost everyone, including Jonas and his head coach, a Cornhusker now stands atop the 2008 outdoor world high jump rankings. His jump ranks ahead of Kabelo Kgosiemang of Botswana, who cleared 2.34 meters last month in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The top two world jumps were achieved in altitudes higher than 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) and are designated with an “A” (for altitude-assisted) on the world charts.

Comparing Boulder to the last five Olympic sites – Athens, Sydney, Atlanta, Barcelona and Seoul – is meaningless.  But to put Jonas’ personal best into dreamland for fun, understand that only two men’s high jump gold medalists in the history of the Olympic Games – Gennadiy Avdyeyenko of the Ukraine in 1988 (2.38) and Charles Austin of the United States in 1996 (2.39) – have jumped higher in the pressured-packed Games than Jonas jumped last Sunday.

Two other Olympic high jump gold medalists – a West German in 1980 and a Swede in 2004 – hit the same 2.36-meter mark in the Games that Jonas cleared in Boulder.

Jonas, who now has jumped three inches higher than he’d ever jumped prior to his senior season, decided to start Big 12 competition 1/2-inch higher than 7-0. For him, it was a career high, opening height decision and a pre-cursor to the pressure of the Olympic Trials, where no competitor likely will be allowed to open lower than 7-2 or 7-2 1/2. Six straight times in Boulder – all the way up to 7-7 3/4 -- Jonas cleared the bar on his first attempt. Already at his personal best, he raised the bar another inch. On his first attempt at 7-8 3/4, he clipped it with his foot. On his second attempt, with the crowd clapping rhythmically and enthusiastically, he soared over the bar and into the minds of track fans around the world.

Wearing his trademark sunglasses, Jonas pumped his fist after he set the record and then called it a day, deciding not to put the bar one-inch higher to match Conway’s all-time collegiate best mark.

Thanks to a great warm-up and a pre-event massage, Jonas felt loose and adrenalized. On his record jump, though, he landed wrong on his right shoulder and could feel a slight pain extend into his neck.

“It’s a little sore, but he’s okay,” longtime Nebraska Head Track and Field Coach Gary Pepin said. “Dusty only missed one jump all day, but he was emotionally drained as much as anything. He’d never won a Big 12 championship, and it didn’t make any sense for him to keep going and risk injury.”

Pepin: Vast Majority of Olympic Track and Field Athletes Are Not College Students

As a college coach, Pepin could not have been more excited. As a national and international expert, he cannot be more concerned. “You just hope good things aren’t happening a little bit too soon for Dusty,” he said. “It’s tremendously difficult for a collegian to make an Olympic team because of the rigorous indoor and outdoor schedules. The vast majority of Olympic track and field athletes are not college students. Most qualifiers train non-stop and tailor their competition to the Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games.”

Make no mistake. “Dusty has a fighting chance to make the Olympic team,” Pepin said, “but in the international game, he’s still just a young buck out there. He knows the world-class outdoor meets are just starting in Europe and the Soviet Union. And he knows it’s probably going to take a jump of 7-10 just to medal in the Olympic Games.”

Still, Jonas is ready to demonstrate the higher jump he can envision in his mind.

Sarah Pavan, someone who knows all about converting potential into performance, called Jonas to congratulate him from Italy, where she is preparing to begin her pro volleyball career in August. Nebraska’s four-time All-America volleyball player, who has been dating Jonas for two years, “was mad because she wasn’t able to see me live,” he said. “But she’ll be here this weekend (for the NCAA Midwest Regional at NU’s Ed Weir Stadium).”

Pavan, and others, can see Jonas’ conference record jump on Fox Sports Network on Friday at 12:30 p.m. (CDT) and again Sunday at 2 a.m. for those who like to pre-set the recorder.

Once he qualifies in the Midwest Regional, Jonas will set his sights on the NCAA Outdoor Championships in mid-June at Drake University in Des Moines. Then it’s on to the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Ore., where Jonas will compete July 3rd and 5th.  Eugene’s Hayward Field, site of the ’72, ’76 and ’80 Olympic Trials, is where the roster for Team USA will be selected for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing Aug. 8-24.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that I can compete on a world-class level,” Jonas said. “I’ve figured some things out and slowed some things down. I’ve moved my approach in, so I can run a tighter curve. I think I finally have the right angle for my takeoff. I don’t want to come across as cocky or anything, but my last jump in Boulder seemed rather easy. I know there’s a higher bar up there for me. It’s just a matter of knowing how much my body can handle at once and then doing it.”

Jonas will depend on Pepin to help answer that question. “We have a mini-cycle going here for regionals and nationals leading up to the Olympic Trials,” he said. “I’d be lying, though, if I said either one of us thought we’d be where we are right now.”

Despite Getting Ahead of Schedule, Jonas Can’t Get Ahead of Himself

As much as he’s ahead of schedule, Jonas refuses to get ahead of himself. “Coach Pepin knows what he’s doing,” he said. “I listen to him and on occasion he listens to me. So it works out well. In addition to being a coach I trust, he’s one of my best friends, bar none. He helped me through last year when it didn’t go well, and he’s helped me stay healthy so everything could fall into place this year.”

Being ranked No. 1 in the world “puts a big target on my back now – nationally and internationally,” Jonas said. “I’m just a small-town kid from La Vernia, Texas. I didn’t expect any of this, but I know if I can do it, anybody can do it. I’ve been truly blessed. I just want to make sure I continue to find the limit on my body and stay consistent between 7-6 ½ and 7-7 ¼. Then, when it’s time to go higher, I expect to be ready.”

Jonas has followed Charles Austin, a fellow Texan and the Olympic and American record-holder, for years. He’s inspired by the adversity Austin overcame in his life and marvels at an athlete who’s only a half-inch taller than Conway, so he, too, gets vertical like he’s just been shot out of cannon. He also knows Austin was 28 years old when he set the Olympic high jump record.

Monday, when his head coach stood on the foam landing in Nebraska’s high jump pit, Jonas looked up at the 7-8 ¾ height he faced in Boulder.

“This is high, that’s what this is,” Jonas said. “I still can’t believe I cleared it.”

His coach believes it. “Dusty has always kept in perspective that he was in the hunt and one of the guys battling for a championship, even if he didn’t win one,” Pepin said. “For a number of years now at the conference level – ever since Dusty’s been at Nebraska – the Big 12 has been the best track conference in the United States. It really hasn’t even been close. So when we compete at the national level, we see more athletes and more teams, but few much better than we’ve competed against in our own conference.

“Even when Dusty wasn’t winning, he never allowed himself to get down,” Pepin pointed out. “He just continued to work hard and continued to improve. He never stopped believing in himself. He’s not just grown as an athlete. He’s grown as an adult and the approach he takes toward everything he does – academics, athletics and just life in general.”

Jonas is excelling in all three areas.  He has a certain confidence, maturity and a new sense of contentment.

Conway’s Words Could Prove Prophetic for Jonas in Months, Years Ahead

Conway, the only guy Jonas now looks up to on the all-time NCAA high jumping charts, wrote this in his book Yes I Can:

“I believe that we can all perform at world-class levels. There is absolutely nothing that can prevent us from reaching our maximum potential.”

Over the next three months, Dusty Jonas will see for himself just how true that statement is.

And the best thing about that is this. He is, as his coach says, “just a young buck” in the international game. That means, win or lose, his best years are still ahead of him.