Melanie Clarke competed in the long jump, triple jump, shotput, high jump and sprints at El Camino Real High, but not the javelin, which is not contested in interscholastic competition in California.
She took up the heptathlon as a freshman at Valley College in the spring and demonstrated instant success in all seven events except one--the javelin.
Clarke, however, has shown steady improvement in the javelin and now is at the point where she can aim for a top-three finish in the heptathlon at The Athletics Congress junior championships this week at Fresno City College. The national meet is open to individuals 14 to 19 years old who have met the qualifying standard.
She will compete in the heptathlon Thursday and Friday and the high jump Sunday. Clarke racked up a personal-best 5,034 points in winning the heptathlon by more than 300 points in the state junior college meet May 18-19. The TAC qualifying standard is 4,200.
“The javelin is the event that I work on the most and it’s still hard,” Clarke, 18, said. “It was bad. It would fly up in the air and then come straight down or land flat and bounce around.
“There’s a lot of technique and so much you have to do before it leaves your hand.”
Too often the javelin would hit the back of Clarke’s head as she prepared to throw it. And on the occasions when Clarke did make a clean throw, there were other problems.
“It would go end over end and looked almost like a boomerang.” said Advantage Athletics Coach Charlie DiMarco, who trains Clarke in the javelin and also has coached Dave Stephens, winner of the 1988 Olympic Trials.
“I would have to clear the field when she threw during practice. Sometimes it would go backwards. It was wild. I didn’t know what it would do. It’s a very hard event to pick up. But now she knows how to carry herself and do the little things to make her look like she knows how to throw the javelin.”
At the state championships at Santa Barbara City College, the 5-foot-11 Clarke threw a personal-best 111 feet 9 inches.
It was only Clarke’s third heptathlon. Clarke, who threw the javelin 71-0 in her first heptathlon, became the first junior college woman to break 5,000 points in the past five years.
The first day of heptathlon competition consists of the 100-meter low hurdles, shotput, high jump and 200; on the second day, the javelin, long jump and 800 are contested.
Had it not been for an unusual mishap, it is possible that Clarke might have won the high jump at the state meet as well.
Clarke, the City Section high jump champion during her junior and seniors years at El Camino Real, cleared 5-8 in the high jump in the state meet heptathlon. The height equaled the TAC high jump standard and was more than two inches higher than the winning jump in the open competition.
Clarke did not attempt to qualify for the open high jump.
While practicing run-ups for the open high jump at the Southern California preliminaries at Cerritos College two weeks before the state meet, Clarke suffered a severely sprained ankle while trying to avoid a collision with an official who inadvertently had crossed her path.
Clarke had qualified for the preliminaries in the high jump, long jump, 400 and shotput at the Western State Conference finals in April, but was forced to scratch from all four events as well as the 400- and 1,600-meter relays.
“Sometimes your ankle gives out and you shake it off,” said Clarke, who refrained from practicing any jumping events before the state meet because of the injury. “This time it wouldn’t. It was still sore at the state meet, but I tried to put (the accident) behind me.”
Now that her ankle has healed, Clarke will try to exceed her state meet total.
Clarke amassed 4,366 points in her debut last summer and 4,934 in winning the Southern California junior college state qualifying meet.
She has the No. 3 qualifying mark in the 14-competitor TAC field.
Tish Milligan of the Knoxville Track Club is tops at 5,518 points, followed by Kallen Madden of Texas A&M; (5,042).
“There’s no question that I am in a lot better shape (than at the state meet) and I have a lot more confidence,” Clarke said. “I know I can improve on my marks in all of the events. I just need to stay focused and not break my concentration.”
The top finishers in the TAC meet will qualify for the U. S. Junior team, which will compete in the World Junior championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, Aug. 8-12, provided they meet the World Junior qualifying standards.
“She’s in great shape right now and going after a personal record,” DiMarco said. “If she does well with her score, compete and keep it going, we’ll be happy.”
DiMarco foresees substantial improvement for Clarke.
“She is such a physical talent,” DiMarco said. “She is still young and there are so many technical things to learn in the heptathlon. . . . She doesn’t have a super weak event. The javelin is the weakest, but now that’s starting to come around.”
And like Clarke, it seems to be heading in the right direction.