Breaking Records In Changing Times


By Kevin Zimmerman

Joni Huntley grew up during a revolutionary era at Sheridan High School in Oregon.

For one, the former Oregon State star's success as a high school high jumper came on the heels of the success by runner Steve Prefontaine, who sparked a rich track and field culture in the Pacific Northwest. At the age of 16, Huntley was already challenging for an Olympic berth and spent time with Prefontaine, one of track and field's track's most famous figures.

"He'd always go, 'Oh, bring that Oregon girl along' for any of the post-meet activities," Huntley says of spending time with the Oregon legend. "It was really neat because I was around in that time."

In addition to the rise of the sport, the early and mid-1970's were days of societal change, as well.

It was Huntley's presence as a female athlete in the 1970's that broke a barrier of sorts. Women weren't given athletic scholarships when Huntley arrived at Oregon State.

But after being noticed by legendary men's head coach Berny Wagner, Huntley was given a scholarship from the men's team. Though she competed for and spent time with the women, she trained with the men, too.

"That was because of Berny Wagner," Huntley says. "He saw in high school I was a serious person and he saw the potential.

"At that time, women weren't even allowed on the track during men's track practice," she adds. "So they had to change that so that I could work out with men."

Before becoming a Beaver, Huntley set the Oregon state high school record in the high jump at 6-feet, 3/4 inches, a number that has stood for 37 years. She only got better at Oregon State, where she trained with some of the best male high jumpers in the nation.

In January of 1975, Huntley set an American record with a 6-foot-2, 1/2 inch jump at the New Zealand Games. During the spring that year, the Beavers hosted the 1975 Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women's National Track and Field Championships, where Huntley won the high jump and long jump.

But following Wagner's departure from Oregon State, Huntley needed a change as the 1976 Montreal Olympics crept up.

"I was 19. I was supposed to do very well," Huntley says. "That was a lot of pressure on me. I couldn't concentrate."
Huntley left her Oregon State team, and moved to Los Angeles to focus on her training.

"The pressure is off," Huntley says. "In L.A., you're not that special. Everyone is doing the same thing. My club was based out of L.A., and my coach was based out of Long Beach. It was a nice, easy fit."

Training under coach Dave Rodda, a Long Beach State track coach, Huntley made the 1976 Olympic team. Going in with a good chance to win, Huntley struggled in the competition.

She finished fifth, and Huntley says she knew she could have done better despite it being her first Olympic experience.

"I was pretty depressed after those Olympics," Huntley says. "I didn't come out of there with very fond memories of that competition."

Only if she had known her shot at redemption wouldn't come until she was considered over-the-hill.

The 1980 Olympic games in Moscow were boycotted by the United States, amongst other countries, after the Soviet's invasion of Afghanistan. It was disappointing for Huntley, who had been working in Los Angeles -- away from her Oregon roots -- in anticipation of the 1980 games.

"After I changed my complete lifestyle in L.A. -- I'm an Oregonian through and through," Huntley says. "I couldn't get out of L.A. fast enough."

Returning to Oregon in 1980, Huntley put her training aside. She believed she needed to give back, and found that opportunity by becoming a jumping coach for the Beavers. She would coach for two years at Oregon State before returning to the sport in 1982.

Because her first Olympic trials performance was in 1972, Huntley's age meant she wasn't a favorite to make the squad that would compete at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, but she placed third in trials to make the team.

"When I made the team, which was my only goal, Dave Rodda said, 'Remember, this is the Olympics. Just enjoy it,'" Huntley says.

That reminded her to soak it all in. Ranked 28th out of the 30 competitors, Huntley also had motivation to do well.

"I loved the underdog idea," she says.

It showed. Huntley finished with a bronze medal after jumping a personal-best 6-foot-5 and 1/2 inches.

Afterward, Huntley was still one of the top five high jumpers in the country so it was hard to call it a career. She pushed on, and in January of 1987 after winning bronze in Los Angeles, Huntley gave birth to her daughter, Sheridan, who is named after Huntley's high school.

Her road back to jumping was a fast one, and Huntley was quickly back in shape and jumping in the nationals competition.

She made the finals, but didn't show up.

"During preliminaries, I could hear (Sheridan) crying in the stands, and I went up into the stands and got her and brought her down," Huntley says. "I was trying to take care of the baby and high jump. I go, 'Forget this. I'm done. That was fun.'

"I flew home. I didn't go to the finals the next day."

Just like that, it was the end of her illustrious career.

Today, Huntley lives in Portland, Ore., and teaches at Forest Park Elementary. She still keeps her hand in the track and field world, coaching both at Jesuit High School and Concordia University.

Says Huntley: "It gives me a chance to give back and enjoy it."

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