As he steps up to the triple-jump runway, a silence envelops the stadium. Heads turn. Fingers point. Pages of programs flutter as spectators try to pronounce his name.
“Hey, watch the triple jump. That Poo-pet Sing - band - ith guy is up.”
With a start, he begins his smooth sprint down the runway. Then, with three powerful jumps-- bam! bam! bam! --he hurls himself into the air, soaring . . . soaring, until finally he crashes into the sandy pit some 50 feet away.
Phouphet Singbandith: The name of this Magnolia High School senior has made many meet announcers wince. And the ability of this Laotian-born athlete has made his competitors envious.
Tonight at Cerritos College, Singbandith will enter the CIF State track and field championships as the triple jump’s top-seeded entrant.
His best mark, 51 feet 3/4 inches, is more than two feet farther than the mark of his closest competitor, Bill Ivey of Nogales. The jump--at the Arcadia Invitational April 7--also ranks Singbandith third nationally after Erick Walder from Mobile (Ala.) Murphy High School (52-0), and Jerome Fraiser of Montgomery (Ala.) Lanier (51-5 1/2).
Because tonight’s portion of the meet features only preliminaries--those who finish in the top nine advance to Saturday’s finals--Singbandith’s strategy will be the same as it has been through most of his competitions this year: Jump to win.
Singbandith will take one or two jumps--whatever it takes to get a 49- or 50-footer--then, as long as no one threatens his mark, sit down, rest his legs, and watch the rest of the competition.
It has been this strategy, implemented by his coaches, Bob Mangan and Al Wallin, that has saved Singbandith from the knee and ankle injuries that plagued him last year.
But in Saturday’s finals, for the first time this season, Singbandith will let loose on all six attempts.
“It’s been hard holding Phouphet back,” said Mangan, who earlier this year drove Singbandith to San Diego for a meet where in less than an hour’s time Singbandith took just one jump, won the event and left.
“I mean, I’m a fan--I want to see him jump,” Mangan said. “But after last year, the disappointment of getting injured . . . Well, I’m just happy we’ve gotten him here healthy.”
Good health, a national ranking, and a full athletic scholarship to Nebraska have been the rewards of a tremendous season for Singbandith, a shy but gracious 17-year-old who left his home land in search of a better life.
Twelve years ago, Singbandith and his mother, sister, three brothers and an uncle, sold everything they had on their farm in the Laotian province of Sedon and embarked on a two-day trek through the steep mountain ranges that separate Laos from Thailand.
“We walked for two days, up the mountains, down the mountains, until we reached the Mekong River,” his uncle, Sisavath Singbandith said. “We went at night, by boat. There were Communist soldiers . . . but finally we made it to Thailand.”
For two years, Sisavath said, the family lived in the Ubol Rajatanee refugee camp, which in one square mile housed 15,000 people--14 to 15 people lived in a one-room bamboo hut, with only a straw mat on the floor and a blanket or two with which to sleep.
Finally, after receiving clearance to come to the United States, the family flew first to San Francisco then to Los Angeles and moved in with Phouphet’s aunt in Buena Park. Today, the Singbandiths, along with several relatives, share a modest four-bedroom home in Anaheim owned by Sisavath.
“I was surprised when I first came. I saw a TV. I said, ‘Wow!’ I never knew TV existed,’ ” said Phouphet. “And you saw all these cars, millions of cars. Back there, you saw maybe one a day.”
But in the initial years, Phouphet said, the language barrier made conditions very difficult.
“The first year, it was really hard,” he said. “I couldn’t talk to anyone. When I went out to the playground, I’d always sit by myself.”
It wasn’t until Mangan talked him into coming out for track and field during his sophomore year that Singbandith became involved in organized sports.
“I put a long piece of tape down on the floor in the back of my classroom,” said Mangan, who taught a sophomore health class that Singbandith took. “I told the kids, ‘This is how long you have to triple jump to win a league championship. Phouphet would stare at it, but when I’d ask him to come out, he’d say no. Finally, after a long time, he said, ‘Yeah, I think I’ll come out.’ ”
Two years later, Singbandith has two Orange League triple jump titles to his name, along with the Orange County record. In addition, this year, he has been undefeated in the event, winning the Southern Section 2-A and Masters titles with ease, setting meet records in the process.
And while 10 years ago Singbandith was identified only by his refugee registration number--T-16648--he is now well known in his Anaheim neighborhood. Singbandith, who dropped the H from the end of Phouphet because “I didn’t want people to call me ‘Poo- peth ,” has attracted the attention of local and national sports media. In the June 4 issue of Sports Illustrated, Singbandith is included in the magazine’s Faces in the Crowd section.
But none of the attention seems to affect Singbandith, who admitted he’d never heard of Sports Illustrated until the magazine wanted to take his picture. He says he just wants to do what he’s been waiting to do since the season began--win a state championship.
“Nothing’s bothering me right now, so I should be fresh,” Singbandith said. “Second (place) would be real disappointing. I’ve been doing everything right . . . I’m not going for any particular mark, but a 52 would be great.”
State Meet Notes
Singbandith says Esperanza triple jumper Clayton Tharrington is his greatest threat. “I think he can break the 50-foot mark if he has a good day,” Singbandith said. . . . The meet, in its 72nd year, begins with tonight’s preliminaries at 3 p.m. with the boys’ discus. Running events start at 5. Other county boys expected to compete include: San Clemente’s Tim Martin (100), Los Alamitos’ Erik Mitchell (100, 200), Katella’s Kendall Wesley (400), El Modena’s Mike Terry (800), El Toro’s David Fair (300 hurdles), Katella’s Kevin Carlson (high jump), Valencia’s Josiah Williams (long jump), Esperanza’s Mark Parlin (shot put, discus) and Mark Kinney (shot put), Dana Hills’ Matt Jordan (shot put) and Andy Marrone (discus) and Loara’s Albert Avila (discus). County girls competing: Edison’s Shelley Taylor (1,600), Katella’s Martha Pinto and University’s Tanja Brix (3,200), La Quinta’s Elinor Tolson (100 hurdles), Woodbridge’s Kaci Keffer and Esperanza’s Nikki Jackson (300 hurdles), Villa Park’s Beth Byron (high jump), Mater Dei’s Melissa McDonald (long jump), Mission Viejo’s Lisa Fager and Tammy Graham (triple jump), Santa Ana Valley’s Joanna Alo and Mission Viejo’s Kristin Dunn (shot put), Estancia’s Debbie Hargrove and Marie Midlands (discus), and Esperanza’s 1,600-meter relay team. . . . In field events, the top nine in today’s preliminaries advance to Saturday’s finals. In running events shorter than 1,600 meters, winners of each heat advance, plus those with the next five fastest times overall. In the 1,600, the top three finishers in each heat advance, along with the next three fastest times overall. The 3,200 is a final event only.