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Flying High 

Local track star Connie Jerz hopes to pole vault her way to Athens.

When I heard through the grapevine that local kid Connie Jerz had placed second in the women's pole vault at the NCAA Championships, I figured I'd get to see this big write-up about her in the morning paper. I mean, this is a great story--Tucson High kid, honors student, set the state record in high school. So I looked and looked and waited and waited.

They had tons of coverage of Major League Baseball, which is now officially America's passed-its-time. They had articles about NASCAR, which is hilarious since the average NASCAR fan can't read and, at best, might be able to have his cousin/sister/wife read it to him. They even had stuff about soccer, apparently so they wouldn't have to leave a blank space.

There was this big article about a semi-pro baseball league in Nogales that drew 75 people to its league opener. I've been to Nogales; you could attract 75 people to an armpit trumpet contest. They had this in-depth look at a minor-league hockey team that arrived stillborn a couple years ago!

Imagine, a minor-league hockey team with shaky financing not making it in the desert. Yeah, that's front-page news.

But there was nothing on Connie Jerz, so she's just going to have to get her pub in The Weekly, which is like saying that the store was all out of ground beef, so you're going to have to eat filet mignon.

(Actually, in all fairness, there was this little wire-service thing about her feat in the daily, but it was smaller than Tom DeLay's heart and tucked away on the bottom of one of the inside pages.)

Connie Jerz was a three-sport athlete at Tucson High. She was a star swimmer in the fall, a scrappy guard on the basketball team in the winter and an all-around track-and-field athlete in the spring. (Her dad, Chuck, competed in track and field at Murray State University in Kentucky and her mom, Helen, played field hockey, basketball and softball at Southern Illinois University.) Connie also excelled in the classroom and finished as runner-up for the prestigious 5A-South Student-Athlete Award. Having dabbled in several different events in track and field, she took up the relatively new (for girls) sport of pole vaulting . During her senior year, she exploded onto the scene.

She set new personal bests at just about every meet and demolished all her competition. She set the state record and won the big-schools state championship.

I got to see her compete several times when she was in high school, and she was spectacular. You could see that she was like a kid with a new toy. With each vault, she would make adjustments and try new things. Since it was a relatively new event, most of her competition would bow out at 7 or 8 feet while she would continue to soar past 11 or 12 feet.

I highly recommend high school track meets. They're one of the last bastions of pure competition, unsullied by commercialism and nonsense. A well-run track meet can be a thing of beauty, with surprises and thrills piled on top of one another. However, a poorly run track meet can be a test of endurance. I've been at track meets that started at 3:30 in the afternoon and finished near 9 at night. You sit on those bleachers that long, and your butt gets flatter than George W. Bush's brainwave pattern.

Anyway, Jerz went off to Long Beach State on a rare track scholarship. (College football teams get 85 scholarships for 22 positions, while track teams usually get a dozen or so to spread out among 40 or 50 athletes.) She was there for a couple of years and then--like most enlightened individuals eventually do--she came to the conclusion that California blows, so she came home. She enrolled at the UA, where she's taking honors-level classes in physiology.

She competed for the Wildcats this season and hit her stride late in the year. Her second-place finish at the NCAAs in Sacramento was one of the few bright spots for the UA, which had an uncharacteristically down year. Then, based on her finish, she was invited to the USA Nationals, which were held last weekend at Stanford. This is big-time, since the top three finishers at next year's nationals will represent America at the Olympic Games in Athens.

I caught up with her as she was doing her laundry the night before leaving for the nationals.

So, how high did you vault in the NCAAs?

"I went over four, 4.30 to be exact."

I don't want to dog you or anything, but isn't four kinda low? I mean, I could probably pole vault 4 feet.

"That's 4.30 meters."

They still use meters?! I thought we just fought a war to rid the world of the metric system. No wait, that was to save us from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. My mistake.

"I did 4.30 and the winner went 4.41." (That means that she went 14 feet, 1 inch--about 4 inches lower than the winner. The conversion from meters to feet and inches can easily be done in your head, unless you've smoked marijuana even once in your life, in which case, the conversion ability disappears forever.)

Do you find yourself thinking about the "O" word (Olympics)?

"That's every track athlete's dream, I suppose. That would be great, but I just want to keep getting better. (World-record holder) Stacy Dragila is around 30 (years old) and she's still setting the pace. I have a lot of years ahead of me."

She has a couple years left in her pursuit of her bachelor's degree. (She's carrying a 3.75 grade-point average.) She also has two years' eligibility left in indoor track and one more in outdoor track. She'd like to win the NCAA championship next spring and be flying high, literally and figuratively, heading into the national trials.

"I'm sure I can go a lot higher," she says.

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