12 year-old McKenna Brown grasped the pole tentatively as her father, Chris, showed her how to stand at the top of the approach. With that final advice the seventh grader from Oak Crest Middle School in Carlsbad, California moved to the runway where she stared at the pit and standards standing some eight steps away, about to make her first ever attempt in a pole vault competition.
McKenna, along with her dad Chris, mom Angela, and 14 year-old brother Kyle were part of a larger than expected crowd of competitors and supporters who showed up at last Wednesday’s Summer Night’s Track & Field Meet at San Diego’s University City High School, the first of a four meet series put on by Paul Greer and the San Diego Track Club. As cities across the world vie for selection as host site for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games — including a joint bid being explored by San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico — it is at small all-comers meets like the Summer Nights series where youngsters like McKenna Brown begin to dream of perhaps making that team.
While McKenna waited for just the right moment to begin her approach, she couldn’t help but be aware of the other vaulters watching from the bench lining the newly laid runway surface. It’s hard enough to enter a road race for the first time tucked into the folds of a large pack. Imagine what it’s like to be a lone vaulter staring at the bar at the top of the runway with every eye turned in your direction.
“If we can keep McKenna healthy, she has a lot of potential,” said dad Chris during a phone conversation several days later. “She’s done well in hurdles and the 400 in school, so she has speed. And she was a phenom in gymnastics until she got bored with it.”
Vaulting, however, is in McKenna’s DNA. Today, Chris Brown is a practicing attorney in San Diego, but in his youth, then known as “Charlie”, he was a 17’6” vaulter for UCLA (class of 1980). He even spent a winter on the indoor track and field circuit traveling with ex-UCLA roommate and 1984 Olympic silver medalist Mike Tully.
Last Wednesday his daughter McKenna added dad’s event to her repertoire. She not only cleared the opening height of 6’0” on her first attempt, she did the same over 6’6”, before topping 7’0” on her third and final attempt after which dad decided that was enough.
“She tweaked her hamstring running hurdles in school,” explained Chris. “And I didn’t want her to re-injure that. Plus, I wanted her to quit on a winner in her first meet. She wanted to keep going, but there were other kids waiting, so we decided to stop there.”
Son Kyle, a freshman at La Costa Canyon High School came into the competition later, and cleared 12’6”, a new PR.
“He was the highest freshman vaulter in San Diego County this year,” mom Angela Brown told me as she watched proudly from the sidelines.
“He just missed qualifying for the CIF (state) meet, but he wanted to clear something above 12 feet this year, and he did on Wednesday,” added Chris later on the phone. “In fact, he missed his school’s track and field awards’ banquet to go to the all-comers meet. ‘I don’t care about awards,’ he told us. ‘I just want to jump.’”
The meet last Wednesday was a star-studded affair with America’s two greatest milers patrolling the infield, Steve Scott and Jim Ryun. Also on hand were two Olympic gold medalists, Brazil’s Joaquim Cruz (800m, L.A. `84) and Monique Henderson (4X400m, `04 Athens, `08 Beijing), along with silver medalist Tonie Campbell (110 hurdles, `88 Seoul). That’s not to mention former road and high school record holder Thom Hunt and ex-NFL wide receiver James Loften, both of whom were competing, Hunt in his eponymous Thom Hunt 5000m (17:46), and Lofton in the 200m (25.72).
Each of these athletes was set on his/her path to glory because they dreamed of running and jumping as youngsters when track and field represented a bigger slice of the American sporting pie chart. Look at the inroads soccer has made in the last 15 years, and you can attribute at least some of that success to U.S. Soccer Federation’s Project 2010, a $50 million developmental program to boost America’s chances in World Cup play. While the program never did fulfill its ultimate goal of putting a U.S. team deep into the World Cup tournament, the spread and acceptance of soccer in the U.S has seen remarkable growth in the time frame of the federation’s efforts.
“Today so many girls who play soccer at school continue right on playing for their club teams afterwards,” Chris Brown said in questioning track’s lack of an organized youth program. “I’m disappointed in the middle school programs here. There is no pole vault in middle school. My dad was in the military and we travelled around a lot, but I spent some time growing up in Texas, and I remember 50 kids piling onto two busses to go to invitational meets when I was McKenna’s age. Though the high school programs here are very good, if kids aren’t exposed to the sport early, you lose them to other sports. Look at lacrosse now for boys.”
It makes you wonder why a sport which is the basis for all other sports, the sport with a higher participation base than any other when combining girls and boys in middle and high school, doesn’t have a more robust national developmental youth program.
USATF’s largest youth program is the Junior Olympics, where nearly 70,000 young athletes compete each year in the Track & Field and Cross Country championships. Many of America’s Olympians began as youth athletes, but AYSO, American Youth Soccer Organization, claims membership of over 600,000 individuals and 50,000 teams throughout all 50 states. It operates with an annual budget of $80 million, while USATF, track and field’s governing body, has $20 million to spend per year on everything cradle-to-grave, indoor 50 meters to the marathon, shot put to pole vault.
Heroes gestate in the womb of dreams where faces and deeds dance through the unconscious like lotto balls in a cluttered cage. Which is why for heroes to emerge at all, they must first be seen, and then for their exploits to have a corresponding outlet to be attempted by the young dreamers.
The pieces are all there for track and field, just not the programs to tie them all together into a coherent whole. Who knows, maybe one day that dream will come true, as well. Until then, here’s to the young dreamers like McKenna Brown.