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Alone At The (Rocky) Top

Updated: Dec 24, 2020

By Tyler Mayforth, USTFCCCA May 10, 2019

Lawrence Johnson is one of a kind.

LoJo, as many know him, was the first black vaulter to make the U.S. Olympic Track & Field team in 1996, the first black vaulter to medal at a world championship in 1997 and the first black vaulter to medal at the Summer Olympic Games three years later.

LoJo Competes for UT (Photo: Tennessee Athletics)

Before all of that, Johnson left his mark on the high school and collegiate levels.

“Lawrence was an animal,” said Toby Stevenson, who is now an assistant coach at Washington and competed against Johnson as both a collegian and as a professional. “He was truly an athlete ahead of his time. He had the right physicality and the right mindset. And when I say mindset, I mean that he was just crazy enough to go for those big jumps back in the early-to-mid 1990s when everybody else wouldn’t.”

Johnson entered the NCAA system with a PR of 5.33m (17-6) that he established as a senior at Lake Taylor High School in Norfolk, Virginia. (Rumor has it that, as a freshman, Johnson didn’t have eyes on the pole vault: He wanted to be a hurdler, but since the program already had four talented athletes in that event group, the coaches herded him toward the runway. It’s safe to say that after two National Scholastic titles and a PR that would probably would have made him an NCAA All-American as a high school senior, all parties involved made the right decision.)

Once at Tennessee, Johnson’s legend grew – as did his hunger to win.

After finishing second to Martin Eriksson in the pole vault at the 1993 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships, Johnson went off on his own to a curtained-off section of the RCA Dome, where the meet was held. Johnson proceeded to run stadium steps for a few hours.

“That probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I had this thing where if I didn’t perform how I wanted to, I would punish myself,” Johnson said. “I felt like I deserved to win every single time I competed, because I worked harder than anybody I knew.”

Perseverance paid off for Johnson later that year as he stood on top of the podium at the SEC Championships – but it wasn’t after the pole vault. Actually, the pole vault was just one of the 10 events he contested over two days. That’s right: Johnson won the SEC decathlon title as a freshman (He placed third as a sophomore and finished runner-up as a senior).

Johnson wouldn’t be denied pole vault glory – or history – for long.

He won five of the next six SEC titles and four of the next six NCAA titles between 1994 and 1996. And it was in 1996 where he set the current collegiate record in the outdoor pole vault of 5.98m (19-7½).

“I just remember those were some pretty fun years, especially 1996,” said Johnson, who’d go on to have a decorated professional career. “Whenever one meet ended, I wondered how I could top myself at the next one. One thing I haven’t lost to this day is that competitive edge.”


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