Young athlete transcends the rules

It all came down to Robin Laird of South Pasadena High.

The track meet. The undefeated season. The Rio Hondo League championship.

If the senior pole vaulter won the final event of the April 29 track meet, her team would win it all. If she didn’t, Monrovia High would wear the crown.

So what happened?

You might already have heard what happened, because the story has generated national buzz, thanks to a bush league move by the Monrovia coaching staff. I’ll get to that in a moment, but let’s go back to the track meet:

With both teams gathered around to cheer on their mates, Laird stepped up to her mark with her fiberglass pole, gaze fixed on the crossbar 60 feet away, 7 1/2 feet off the ground.

“I was thinking, ‘I can do this, and it’s going to win us a championship,’ ” said Laird, who’s vaulted as high as 9 feet in the past.

With victory on the line, she flew down the runway but her rhythm was off. She pulled up short and returned to the starting line to give it another shot.

This time she had it going, a nice fluid gait. This time she dug the pole into the box and rode the bend of that pole up, up, up and cleanly over the bar at a height that appeared to seal an undefeated season for her team.

Until the Monrovia High coaches broke her heart.

“I get called over and he tells me I was disqualified,” Laird said.

Head coach Mike Knowles, or perhaps one of his assistants, spotted a violation of California Interscholastic Federation rules. No, Laird wasn’t on steroids. She didn’t have springs in her sneakers or propellers in her braids.

She was wearing a little string bracelet, and league rules say no jewelry is allowed.

Laird told me she bought the bracelet to support a South Pasadena High club that was raising money for the World Wildlife Fund. She’d been wearing it constantly since November and was barely aware it was still on her wrist.

Surely, you’d think, reason would have prevailed. You’d think the adults would have agreed that it’s a stretch to call a few strands of string a piece of jewelry. But this was youth sports, long the domain of palookas who seem determined to send kids all the wrong messages.

The coaches from both teams gathered and made a call to the CIF, whose officers affirmed that rules are rules.

Laird was disqualified; Monrovia won.

“I could not stop crying,” said Laird, who had invited several of her best friends to the meet, only to have them witness her horror.

She said she was confused and overwhelmed by the quick turnaround from soaring victory to crushing defeat. But she wasn’t pointing fingers at the Monrovia coach. She was angry at herself.

“I thought, ‘Oh, I lost the meet for my whole team.’”

One of Laird’s teammates, 400-meter man Oliver Mittelstaedt, was outraged enough to march right up to a Monrovia coach and ask the question that begged to be asked.

“I asked him if he felt like a winner,” said Mittelstaedt, who happens to have served as state youth governor in the California YMCA Youth & Government program. “He said, ‘No.’ He said something along the lines of ‘No one likes to win this way.’ ”

Wait a minute, was Knowles playing the victim after crushing a teenage girl’s heart so he could walk away with his hollow victory?

I called Monrovia High to speak to Knowles but was told he doesn’t work there full-time. I got transferred to the office of the principal and left a message but didn’t get a call back. Knowles was, however, quoted in the Pasadena Star-News.

“I didn’t want to do that,” he said. “I’ve lost a CIF title because a girl had one diamond earring she forgot to take out in the 4-by-400 relay.”

Let me bring young Gov. Mittelstaedt back in here.

“It’s important not to take your own misfortune,” he said, “and pass it on to the next person.”

Thank you, Oliver.

Officials from the two schools met Wednesday night and concluded that Laird’s disqualification, and Monrovia’s victory, would stand. In a joint statement, school officials said the CIF had defined jewelry as “anything that adorns the body.” The two schools urged “those responsible for this rule to revisit its appropriateness.”

My original intent, I must admit, was to administer a public flogging to Coach Knowles. But that was before I met with Laird, who has more class than the coach and I combined.

I stopped by Laird’s home Thursday night and found a poised young woman who, in spite of this unfortunate fiasco, is a model of mercy and grace. Laird, who will attend USC in the fall, said she thinks the decision on her disqualification and Monrovia’s championship should stand.

“It would be unsportsmanlike for us to try to take it back,” she said. “I think that in my experience with playing so many sports, I know that it’s about more than just rules . . . but I’m accepting of the fact that rules are rules.”

As a super-competitor, she still feels terrible about her miscue and the impact on her entire team. But, Laird added, “it’s easy to lose sight of what it’s all about. … There’s more to value than a league championship.”

Defeat has never been handled so winningly.