Jumping at the opportunity

Track and field: Calvert Hall graduate Ryan Olkowski specialized in the high jump, but his experiment with the long jump resulted in a silver medal at the Junior Pan Am Games last week

Track and Field

July 17, 1999|By Kaija Langley | Kaija Langley,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Most people mistake Ryan Olkowski for a basketball player. At 6 feet 4, 150 pounds, he has the height and agility to play seriously, but doesn't anymore. This 19-year-old Penn State sophomore from Perry Hall uses his athleticism on the track instead.

Last week, after six jumps, Olkowski claimed a silver medal in the long jump at the Junior Pan Am Games in Tampa, Fla. He captured second with a leap of 24 feet, 2 inches, but at a price: a swollen, bandaged leg after spiking himself earlier in the meet.

"I was bleeding everywhere, but they patched me up so I could finish my last three jumps," he said, sporting his USA uniform on the Essex Community College track where he trains during the summer. "It wasn't under the best circumstances, but I did it."

Oddly enough, basketball was his first sport of choice. But out of boredom, and in need of something to keep him physically active during the spring season, he stumbled upon track and field. He began pole vaulting his freshman year at Calvert Hall. One jumping event led to another, and soon he was competing in the high jump, long jump and triple jump, too.

His junior year, he began consistently winning the high jump. His senior year, he turned in the metro area's best performance, clearing 6 feet, 10 inches. Mary Bondyra, head indoor/outdoor track coach for Calvert Hall, said she knew then that he showed enough promise to compete at the college level.

"Most kids peak in high school," said Bondyra. "Considering we only had him from March to May, Ryan is just beginning to tap into his real ability. The key was getting him into a school that would bring out his natural talents."

Olkowski chose Penn State to continue his high jumping career. His first season with the proper facilities to train, a tougher training regimen and an attentive jumping staff proved challenging at first, says his mother, Jayne Olkowski.

"So far he's done everything on natural talent," she said. "Once he got there, the coaches worked with him to change his high jump form. He was barely clearing 6-4."

His mother's concern dissipated when she witnessed her son clear his personal best of 7-2 1/2 later in the season. That jump earned him an 80 percent athletic scholarship to the Big Ten school, beginning next year. It was also during his rookie year at Penn State that he realized he had an affinity for the long jump.

"I wanted to try it, but we had two All-American long jumpers already," he said. "I signed myself up during the Penn State Open and after seeing me jump it was like, `Wow, let him jump.' "

His hunch landed him a 24-2 jump. Later, in the Big Ten meet, he jumped 25-8, long enough to qualify for the Junior National Championships. In total, he experimented with the long jump only three times at the college level before qualifying for the Pan Am Games with a Junior National meet jump of 25-3.

He said the heat and rain didn't make for a perfect jumping day at the Games, and 13 others were competing in his event.

"It was kind of intimidating," he said. "But once I put on my USA gear, and I realized I had the opportunity to represent my country, the adrenalin started flowing."

His third jump resulted in a gouged left calf. It wasn't the first time he'd spiked himself while attempting to perform a self-taught hitch-kick.

After trainers whisked him off the field for treatment in the locker room, he fouled on his next two jumps. On his last try, he hit the board dead-on and completed the jump that earned him the silver medal.

"After I saw him spike himself, I didn't care if he placed 14th," said his mother. "But he came back on the field and just kept going. I think that says a lot about his character. It was just an honor for him to even be there."

Olkowski missed a gold medal by inches. Levar Sands of the Bahamas jumped 24-6. .

For now Olkowski is waiting to have the stiches in his calf removed before beginning weight training. Later this month, he has an invitation to attend the United States Olympic Development Elite Camp in San Diego to improve his high jump and long jump skills.

"I'd like to compete in the 2004 Olympics," said Olkowski. "But I have a lot to learn, and a lot of weights to lift. I'm still just a boy."

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