Updated: Dec 21, 2020
Celebrating A Century of NCAA Track & Field Championships
Posted: July 23, 2020
“LoJo” was just one of the nicknames Lawrence Johnson garnered while pole vaulting at Tennessee.
His teammates also called him “Black-ba, as in the Black Bubka,” Merrell Noden wrote in Sports Illustrated, referring to then-world record holder Sergey Bubka.
By any nickname, the native of Norfolk, Virginia, was a barrier- and record-breaking vaulter, whose 1996 NCAA title came with a meet record of 5.82m (19-1) that would last 22 years until Chris Nilsen of South Dakota broke it with a 5.83m (19-1½) clearance in 2018. The former Volunteer star’s margin of victory that year – 27 centimeters (10½ inches) – currently sits third all-time in meet history behind Nilsen (2019) and Bob Seagren (1969), who are tied at 28 cm (11 inches) each.
Johnson was the last male vaulter to set NCAA DI meet records both indoors and outdoors. He jumped 5.83m (19-1½) to win the NCAA title at the 1994 NCAA DI Indoor Championships prior to leaving his mark on the outdoor record book the following year. Johnson also previously owned both the indoor and outdoor collegiate records, the latter of which held strong for 23 years until Mondo Duplantis erased it last year.
As a prep athlete at Lake Taylor (Va.) High School, Johnson was steered toward the vault, because his team was loaded with hurdlers. Another story has it, though, that he was caught doing backflips off the bleachers in the gymnasium and the track coach at the time told him, “Boy! You are a pole vaulter if I ever saw one. I need you to come to the track today and try out this pole vault thing.”
Johnson did – and the rest was history.
“People kept saying, ‘He’s a Black pole vaulter. He won’t succeed,’” Johnson told Noden in that Sports Illustrated article. “I knew if I worked hard enough, I could do it. I watched ‘Rocky’ movies growing up.”
Johnson succeeded on the international stage as well. In 2000, Johnson earned Olympic silver at the Sydney Games to become the world’s first Black vaulter to reach the podium. A year later, Johnson won a world title at the World Indoor Championships in Lisbon, Portugal.
NOTE: Upon arriving at Tennessee, Johnson initially joined the Vols’ strong decathlon group and combined his initial love of hurdling, pole vaulting and eight other disciplines. True to form, Johnson excelled at that, winning the 1993 SEC title as a freshman with 7576 points, then the second best total by an American under the age of 20.