Tucked away in a dusty Atascadero backyard sits a playground unlike any other.
It’s filled with rubber-surfaced runways, giant foam mats and contraptions that resemble medieval torture devices. And of course, 600 fiberglass poles. It’s a pole vaulter’s paradise.
On Tuesday, the playground was also filled with campers, about 50 high-school- and college-aged athletes who came from all over California and the U.S. to learn from the playground’s manager, pole-vault legend Jan Johnson.
Now 65 years old, 44 years removed from his bronze-medal performance in the 1972 Summer Olympics, Johnson walks amid the soaring and flipping athletes attending his Sky Jumpers summer camp while wearing a beat-up Baltimore Orioles baseball cap, sandals and an Atascadero Junior High School track T-shirt. He rarely stops moving or talking.
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Johnson admits he can’t remember the name of every camper, but he regularly spouts the personal records of each one during introductions. He’s just an administrator now and lets the other coaches take the reigns, he says. But as he walks around, he can’t help but comment on the technique of each pole vaulter.
“You are holding left-handed grip, but you are taking off with your left foot. You gotta change your hands,” Johnson says to one camper in passing.
“Kinda blew through that one a little bit, huh?” Johnson says to another as the young jumper clears the elastic training bar and crashes onto the foam pit.
The camper nods, savoring a little bit of praise from a National Pole Vault Hall of Fame member, an Olympic medal winner and one of the most influential figures in the sport’s U.S. history.
Johnson will be watching when the 2016 Summer Olympics kick off on Aug. 5 in Rio. He knows the names of everyone pole vaulting for the Americans.
But the memories of his own experiences at the ‘72 Games in Munich, West Germany, aren’t all fond.
“My impression was that (the Olympics) were full of politics and drugs,” Johnson said. “Pole vaulting to me was just play. The Olympics just took the play out of it. That was the problem, in my opinion.”
Johnson said in the days leading up to the finals, he dealt with an injured heel that nearly caused him to miss the competition, the controversial banning of the type of pole he was using and a dubious offer from a Scandinavian doctor.
“(The doctor) goes to me, ‘I take your blood now, and I give you back your blood in Munich right before you run and you run like you never thought possible,’ ” Johnson said. “And I’m like, ‘I’m not doing that. I don’t think I need that on the pole vault.’ ”
Johnson said the doctor made the same offer to his friend, legendary American runner Steve Prefontaine, who also turned it down.
Later, the two watched as Finland’s Lasse Virén won the 10,000-meter race in world-record time despite falling down.
“I looked over at Pre, and I go, ‘Maybe you should have done that blood doping thing,’ ” Johnson said laughing. “True story.”
Johnson said it wasn’t drugs but a tip right before the finals from his high school coach that helped him finish third behind East Germany’s Wolfgang Nordwig and USA’s Bob Seagren.
“He comes down and he says, ‘You know, you are not going to jump 17 feet 6 inches on that pole from that run. You have to shorten your run up one left. You need to run slower to jump high on this pole,’ Johnson said, recalling the conversation. “And I go, ‘Well how much is a left?’ And he goes like this, ‘13-and-a-half shoes.’ ”
With the runway measurements in metric, Johnson measured out 13-and-a-half lengths of his shoe.
“And jump and I jumped 17 feet 6 inches on that jump,” he said.
When he was awarded his bronze medal, which he now keeps in a glass display case in his living room, he remembers one thing.
“Being really glad it was over,” Johnson said. “The Olympics is just a business. It’s a business of making money just like any other business. I don’t need that. But I’m glad I got there. I’m glad it was fun.”
Heck of a track record
After a decorated career that included the Olympic bronze, a 1970 NCAA title at Kansas and a gold medal at the 1971 Pan American Games, Johnson started coaching. He and his wife, Jani, eventually moved to Atascadero in 1991.
“There wasn’t anything on it,” Johnson said, pointing out over his sprawling property not far from Highway 101 that also includes a Koi fish pond and a pair of half-pipes. “It was just a flat lot, which was perfect.”
Over the next 25 years, Johnson planted trees, constructed a barn and turned the Sky Jumpers Vertical Sports Club into a popular destination for pole vaulters who were serious about becoming elite.
With Johnson, they get the man who has coached some of the top pole vaulters in the country, including 1997 World Championships bronze medalist Dean Starkey, former Australia record holder Simon Arkell, Morro Bay High School graduate and former national high school record holder Shayla Balentine and Johnson’s daughter, 2009 World Championships silver medalist Chelsea Johnson.
According to Johnson, half of the pole vaulters jumping at the Olympic Track and Field Trials last week in Eugene, Oregon, have been through the Sky Jumpers camp. After this week’s camp at his home, Johnson will fly to Philadelphia to put on another. He estimates that he will speak with more than 5,000 athletes and coaches all over the country before the year is over.
And he continues to have an impact not just nationally, but locally as well.
With Johnson’s help, pole vaulter and Cuesta College Female Athlete of the Year Augusta Thomason won back-to-back California Community College State Track and Field titles and will be attending Texas A&M for her junior year on a partial scholarship.
“Texas A&M is a dream school for me,” said Thomason, who was helping Johnson at the camp this week.
Johnson said that the secret to his success is his backyard. But really, it’s what is in it: 10 different imitative exercises that simulate each part of a vault.
There’s the run, the hand shift and plant, the swing, the pull and turn and get off at the top. Each piece of equipment, developed and built by Johnson, aims to fine tune the steps.
“That’s what I learned in college,” Johnson said. “I got my bachelor’s degree in education and my master’s degree in biomechanics, and that’s the way I teach. I teach little segments. Part-whole. Always have.”
San Luis Obispo High School senior James Higgins has been working with Johnson for two years.
“There was a girl on our track team that was like, ‘Hey, you should come to pole vault today.’ And I rode up here with her, took a jump or two,” Higgins said. “Suddenly, I was a pole vaulter.”
Higgins, who is entering his senior year, increased his personal record by three feet from his sophomore to junior year.
“Jan is a great coach,” Higgins said. “Most of my progression has been a testament to his coaching.”
Most point to Johnson’s uncanny ability to analyze a jump in real time, though the use of video has become an ever-increasing part of his training methods. But Higgins, who also plays basketball, said that Johnson’s ability to keep jumpers loose with his recycled jokes and pop culture references is just as important as the mechanics.
“There is a mental dynamic that is different than any other sport. A couple meets I was on my own, and it was easy to get frustrated when you are not doing good. No matter what, he is always joking around,” Higgins said. “He doesn’t have much of a filter, but he is just such a great guy that everyone just loves what he says. If someone else said it would be like, ‘Uhhh,’ but he is such a genuine guy that it’s impossible not to love him.”
Higgins said his goal is to break the school record. Johnson’s goal is to help him do it in one piece.
Johnson has been an outspoken and influential figure when it comes to pole-vault safety. A study in early 2000 ranked pole vaulting as having the highest death rate per participant of any sport, a sport that has been around since the 1896 Olympics. The 2002 death of Penn State University sophomore Kevin Dare at the Big 10 indoor championships rocked the pole vaulting world. Since then, Johnson has worked to make changes to improve safety, including widening the landing area and softening the vault plant box, the spot where the pole is placed before a jump.
“We are just always playing around with making it safer. The best way to make it safer is to eliminate hard surfaces,” said Jonson, who also serves as the chairman of the National Pole Vault Safety Committee and co-director of the National Pole Vault Coaches certification program. “There are things out there that the rule makers don’t understand, that some of the coaches don’t understand. Because I have pole vaulting in my backyard, I can play with things.”
Johnson is working with patent attorneys to get his latest invention, a prototype for a new vault box that is nearly all soft, into the hands of pole-vault coaches around the country. Johnson said pole vaulting is already difficult enough without the added worry of serious injury.
“It’s scary sometimes,” Johnson said. “Conditions can be scary. Wind can be scary. A bigger pole that can be scary. You have to have good technique and learn to overcome your fears. If you have too many fears, you won’t do as well. So yeah, there’s a special breed of cat that can pole vault high.”
Spread out across the floor of his home office surrounded by years of newspaper clippings and trophies is another one of Johnson’s projects: his autobiography.
In it are chapters about his life growing up in Hammond, Indiana, stories of the time he borrowed a pole from legendary decathlete Caitlyn Jenner (then Bruce) before the ‘72 Olympics began and more from raising his two children.
Johnson said his daughter, Chelsea, is set to give birth to a daughter in November. He hopes the latest member of the family can carry on the pole-vaulting tradition.
“I told them that they need to have that baby girl, and she needs to be tall, fast and not too smart,” Johnson said, referring to what he calls the best attributes of a good pole vaulter.
These days, Johnson likes to keep his distance from the ultra-competitive part of world-class pole vaulting. He likes it better here, in his Atascadero backyard with the kids. They remind them of himself in the ‘60s, when he used a makeshift pole vault to fly over his mother’s clothesline in Northwest Indiana.
“I’m still in the backyard, man. It just feels comfortable to me. You gotta get insurance an all that, obviously, but that’s OK,” he said with a laugh.