LEAP TO FREEDOM : Stanislaw Oporski Jumped From Tanks to Tables When He Hopped a Taxi in Italy

Times Staff Writer

They remember with fondness the day Stan Oporski introduced himself at the Moorpark College track.

He walked up to Coach Manny Trevino, stated his name, claimed he was a member of the Polish national team, and said he could triple jump better than 50 feet.

Great, Trevino said. Go right ahead.

The old coach had seen this act before. It was amazing how tiny Moorpark could attract such talent. Sprinters claiming they had run a 10.2 100 meters walked right in off the street. So did 18-foot pole vaulters and 25-foot long jumpers.

The only problem was, they never came close to those standards at Moorpark. Those 10.2 guys sometimes never broke 11.0. Often, they disappeared after the first day of workouts. So pardon Trevino if he acted a bit skeptical. "I will believe it when I see it," he said.

In this case, however, the pessimism was short-lived.

It took Oporski exactly one jump to convince Trevino that he could help the team. A few more and the story about being a member of the Polish team sounded believable, too.

Who was this guy? How did he end up at Moorpark? Trevino wanted to know.

By the time he left the track that day, Trevino had the answers. He also had a world-class triple jumper on his team.

And Oporski? After months of looking, he had found a place to call home.

The sound of their engines used to wake Stanislaw Oporski each morning. Tanks, 20 or more, were patroling the streets of Warsaw.

It was December, 1981, and the country was under martial law. There was military equipment and security police on almost every street corner.

From the window of his family's modest fourth-story apartment, Oporski surveyed the scene below and wished he could do something to stop it.

"It was scary, all those tanks out there," Oporski said. "I felt so bad. They were arresting so many innocent people--people who were from Solidarity. I wanted to do something about it, but what could I do? What could anybody do? It was a helpless feeling."

Eventually, Oporski did something. He left.

On a sunny spring afternoon in Milan, Italy, he walked out of an airport, hailed a taxi, and left behind life as he knew it.

He had gone to Italy to take part in an international track and field meet as a member of the Polish team.

He left a defector in search of a dream.

Two years have passed since Oporski abandoned friends, family and country for what he believed would be a life of high-level training, top-notch competition and a measure of stability.

What he got instead was a lot of schoolwork, junior college competition, and a job as a busboy at a restaurant in Thousand Oaks.

"I was thinking that I could go to school, get a scholarship, practice, and that's it," Oporski said. "That's how it was in Poland. That's what I thought it would be like here."

Sure, his life has not gone according to plan, but he could be worse off.

He lives with friends in a spacious hillside home in Thousand Oaks. He drives a sports car and spends a lot of time relaxing on the beach.

He did so well for the Moorpark track team this spring that he earned a scholarship to Cal State Los Angeles, an NCAA Division II power in the sport.

"I am very lucky," he said. "I feel good about my life again."

But even now Oporski, 26, finds it hard to talk about the political unrest that eventually drove him away from his homeland.

In an interview, he lowers his eyes and fidgets in the seat when he is questioned about his life in Poland and the reasons he left.

"This is not easy to explain," Oporski said, pausing every few seconds to think over his words. "People sometimes don't understand. I love my country. It is a beautiful country. I have my family and friends there. But I felt that my future there was not very clear. Being on the national team, I didn't have to worry. I went to school and I practiced. That was it. But what was next? I had no idea. The political situation was so unstable. It made me sad.

"The people who work there can't trust the government. How can you trust when someone is sticking a gun to your head and saying, 'Go work. Then we'll talk.' It wasn't right."

Defecting was a move Oporski considered for a long time. His friends urged him to go. His mother pleaded with him to stay. His father told him he was old enough to make his own decision.

Their words echoed in Oporski's ears as he left the Milan airport that day with 45,000 Italian lira and a $100 American bill in his pocket, a travel bag full of clothes and a bottle of brandy he received as a gift for competing in the track meet.

Recalled Oporski: "We were late. The plane was waiting for us. Everyone was rushing to get and not paying much attention. I just walked away."

He flagged down a taxi, but had little idea where to go. Or, for that matter, how to tell the cab driver where to go.

"I knew a little English, but even less Italian," Oporski said. "I didn't know what to do or where I had to go to do it. It was not a good situation. I told the guy to drive to the nearest train station."

Upon arrival at the train station, however, Oporski was presented with another problem: The cab fare came to 50,000 lira (about $30) and he had only 45,000.

Luckily, the taxi driver was very fond of brandy.

"I said, 'I am sorry Mr. Taxi Man, I only have 45,000 lira, but I do have this bottle of brandy,' " Oporski said. "He was more than happy. He says, 'Oh, grazie! Grazie!' "

Oporski's next move was to change the $100 bill to lira and buy a ticket to Trieste, where he believed there was a refugee camp. He arrived at 1 a.m. only to find out that the camp had been closed for more than a year.

Later that morning, Oporski visited the Trieste police station, hoping they could help. The police suggested a refugee camp in Latina and gave him a free train ticket to get there.

Oporski stayed in Latina for two months, waiting for the U.S. State Department to process his visa request and find him a place to live.

"It bothered me that I couldn't come (to the United States) right away, but I was lucky," Oporski said. "Some of the people I met had been waiting almost a year. All I could think about was how exciting it was going to be to live in this country. I had heard so many good things. It was like my life was starting over.

"On the plane trip over I wondered what it was going to be like. I thought it must be like Europe only bigger and better."

His first impression? Someone must have made a mistake.

The America to which Oporski was first introduced was not exciting, glittery, beautiful, or, for that matter, clean and safe.

It was Brooklyn.

Said Oporski: "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, where am I? What have I done?' It was a very big surprise. This was not like I had imagined America would be like.

"The place that I lived in was a shack. A shack in a very bad area. People would approach me on the street and ask me for money or cigarettes. It wasn't safe. I had a night job so I had to ride the subway and then walk about a mile home at one in the morning. It was scary."

Had he been a famous athlete, such as Jens-Peter Berndt, who defected from East Germany in 1983, Oporski might have had an easier time getting settled in this country.

Berndt, a world-renowned swimmer, had a new wardrobe, a place to live and a full scholarship at the University of Alabama waiting for him within a few weeks of defecting.

That was not the case for Oporski.

In Poland, Oporski was the second-best triple jumper on the national team. Internationally, he was not known at all.

For the first four months he was in this country, therefore, Oporski cleaned office buildings in Manhattan and never set foot on a track or in a weight room.

A friend finally put him in touch with a track coach who had contacts with athletic clubs all over the East Coast.

"I could have caught on with a number of clubs, but he advised me to come out to California to go to school and compete, instead," Oporski said. "He felt going to school was very important for me."

Azusa Pacific University and Cal Lutheran College expressed interest in Oporski, but he enrolled at Moorpark, to the surprise of the coaches there.

Said Trevino: "Most people who just walk off the street and want to compete tend to talk a better game than they play. With Stan, that was not the case. The first time we saw him jump we knew he was legit.

"He has an aura about him. Something that tells you he's special. Having him with us for two years was a treat for us and an inspiration for our other athletes. Being around a world-class athlete like Stan seemed to help our whole team."

Said Mike Stewart, the Moorpark jump coach: "When I saw Stan jump my first thought was, 'My goodness, what did I do to deserve this?' It was obvious he had great ability."

But outside of Moorpark, Oporski was still relatively unknown.

Example: Last year's Mt. SAC Invitational track meet.

Oporski was not invited to compete at the prestigious meet, but he wanted to jump so badly that he paid his way into the stadium, sneaked down onto the infield, found the meet director, and tried to talk his way into it.

At first the director said no, but when a scheduled participant failed to show up, Oporski was told he could jump. He finished sixth in a strong field of more than a dozen.

This spring, he was invited back and finished second to world record-holder Willie Banks with a jump of 55 feet.

It was the best jump of Oporski's life. His best in Poland had been 54-6.

Oporski said that his effort at Mt. SAC was largely due to the competition. "Before, I wasn't being pushed," he said. "I lifted weights alone, a ran alone and there wasn't much competition at the JC level. For (Mt. SAC) I really got excited. Some of the best in the world were there."

The meet also came at a time when Oporski was near the top of his game.

"I was really feeling good, jumping good," Oporski said. "I felt so strong, so fast. I was in great shape. I felt like I could go 55 or 56 feet every time."

He was peaking at the right time. The state JC track meet was only a month away. There, the competition would also be tough.

Oporski won the Western State Conference championship easily, but at the Southern Cal meet in Bakersfield he injured his heel and couldn't walk for almost a week.

He qualified for the state meet, but finished a disappointing second to Glendale College's Joe Richardson. He attempted only three jumps out of a possible six because the pain from his heel was so intense.

Oporski is taking a respite from competition this summer, hoping that the time off will help his injured heel.

He quit his job as a busboy two months ago and is looking for a job at a movie or television studio.

"In the past (triple jumping) has been my everything," Oporski said. "It was all I worked for and thought about. That has changed some now, but it is still important to me. I want to go as far as I can go."

But when his athletic career ends, he will have another goal to work toward. Someday, he says, he would like to produce or direct a movie.

"If I have changed since leaving Poland, it is that I look toward the future more," Oporski said. "I think of what I would like to be doing some years from now. In Poland, I tried not to think about the future at all.

"When I think about what happened there, I feel sad all over again. I remember how scary it was--all those tanks. They were trying to scare people. They did that. They scared me away. Good for me."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
63°