It''s a leap year for high jumper
CHAMPAIGN – It's a scene repeated hundreds, maybe thousands of times at high schools across the country each year.
A coach spots a student in the hallway or in class who stands head and shoulders above the rest. Or, on the first day of practice, sets grateful eyes on that conspicuously tall kid trying out for the team.
And suddenly, the coach thinks, finding an athlete for that hard-to-fill position may not be such a tall order after all.
Those were Phil Watnick's thoughts the first time the coach at South Shore High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., saw Stacy Ann Grant.
Don't jump to conclusions, though. Watnick isn't one of those basketball coaches constantly on the lookout for his next center. Instead, he coaches track and field. And in Grant, then a 5-foot-9 freshman, Watnick saw his next high jumper.
"Because I was so tall, he figured this would be the event for me," Grant, now a 5-11 University of Illinois sophomore, recalled this week.
Grant had her doubts. She'd never high jumped before, and the thought of hurtling her body over some 5-foot-plus bar hardly qualified as her idea of fun.
But Grant was willing to give it a shot, even if her initial attempts were, in her words, "horrible."
"I was (clearing) 4-2," Grant said. "I didn't like it at first. I thought it was extremely difficult."
But Grant stuck with it, and started to stick out in her specialty. By her sophomore year, she was New York City's high school high jump champion, the first of three such titles she would claim. As a junior, Grant ranked second in the nation among prep high jumpers. And as a senior, she recorded the No. 3 indoor jump among that same group.
Not surprisingly, her view of the event had changed dramatically by that time.
"As I improved in it, the love for it just came its way," said Grant.
The improvement continues. A couple weeks ago, Grant won the Big Ten indoor title. Twice this winter she has cleared 5-11 1/2, a personal indoor best and currently tied for fifth best in the nation. In the process, she's qualified for the first time for the NCAA Indoor Championships, to be held today and Saturday at Indianapolis.
"I've been ecstatic with how she's improved," Illini coach Gary Winckler said. "She just looks totally different this year than she did a year ago."
Not that Grant struggled as a freshman. In Big Ten meets, she placed fourth indoors and fifth outdoors. Then came the stunner. In her first NCAA meet, Grant tied for fifth place in the outdoor high jump at 5-11 1/2.
"I really wasn't expecting to be an All-American at all," said Grant, who became one that day. "That never really crossed my mind."
What does cross Grant's mind these days is that so-far-elusive 6-foot jump. In each of her first two meets this season, before a chronic shin injury flared up, she barely missed clearing bars set at 6-1.
"I guess I'm so anxious when I get to that height that I panic or I change my whole approach," Grant said. "Hopefully this weekend I'll get it."
Winckler won't go out on a limb about this weekend, but he's confident Grant eventually will clear the 6-foot barrier.
"Certainly she has that ability," the UI coach said. "I think if she continues on the path she's on ... she's going to jump 6-1, 6-2 or higher.
"I believe she can jump with the best in the country. It's just going to take more experience and a little more maturity."
Also qualified for this weekend's meet from Illinois are Benita Kelley (55 meters) and Collinus Newsome (shot put). Kelley's best time (6.82 seconds) ranks sixth nationally. Newsome's best throw of 52-3 1/4 ranks ninth.