South L.A. track athlete, almost 88, jumps at a chance to compete
Johnnye Valien was waiting her turn in the long jump event at a West L.A. College track meet last week when she realized nobody was using the nearby high jump pit. This is an athlete who cannot help herself. She sees a challenge and she’s compelled to attack it, as if she has no idea she is about to turn 88.
On her way over to the high jump area, the South Los Angeles resident passed the pole vault pit. And that stopped her cold, her eyes lit by competitive desire.
I know what you’re thinking: Is a vault, by someone in her 80s, physically possible?
Valien, as a matter of fact, is the reigning world record-holder for women 85 to 90.
“You’d like to get in there, wouldn’t you?” I asked as Valien eyeballed a teenage pole vaulter.
“Yes I would,” Valien confessed, but she hasn’t vaulted in a year or so. She’s planning to compete at the world masters championships this October in Brazil, though, where she doesn’t intend to hold back.
“I’m going to sign up for everything in Brazil,” Valien said.
Valien, I discovered, doesn’t like talking about what she does; she likes doing it. I heard about her from a patron at Tolliver’s barber shop and began pestering her for an interview, but she wanted none of that. And Valien’s daughter, Roxanne, wasn’t surprised.
“I kid you not,” said Roxanne, “Sports Illustrated wanted to do an interview and she said, ‘Oh, no. That means I’m going to have to clean up the house…I don’t need all that.’”
I was glad to hear that, since I’d taken it a little personally the first two times I called her and she had no interest in talking to me. I kept at it, though, and one day I managed to keep Valien on the phone long enough to ask how — if she travels to her workouts by bus — she manages to carry her javelin.
“I usually practice javelin in my backyard,” said Valien, and I knew I had to meet her.
Valien, who wore a black-and-white warmup suit to last week’s all-comers meet, ran track at Tuskegee University, and seven of her teammates made the 1948 U.S. Olympic team. The fact that she wasn’t one of them may be one reason she’s still got the fire, long after retiring from her job in L.A.'s parks department and raising three kids on her own after her husband died in the 1970s.
“I didn’t know anything about masters track until 1988,” said Valien, whom you might call a late bloomer.
In 2002, she was inducted into the Masters Track Hall of Fame. In 2011, she was the organization’s athlete of the year after setting age-group world records in the pole vault and long jump, as well as American records in the shot put, high jump and 100 meters. Valien still holds age-group world records in the 80- and 300-meter hurdles and the seven-event heptathlon.
“And she’s not the oldest woman out there,” said Ken Stone of masterstrack.com. “There are people in their late 80s and several in their early 90s.”
Stone said the elders enjoy their reunions at meets, but when it’s time to compete, they sharpen their spikes. Valien has “the eye of the tiger” when the starting gun goes off, according to Stone, who said her pole-vaulting is a snapshot of determination as she “whips her legs up over the bar with her stomach muscles … and throws the pole away from her.”
Valien cleared the pole vault crossbar at nearly 5 feet — just under her height — when she was 80. At the world championships in Spain in 2005, she ran 800 meters in 5:18, long-jumped 6 feet 8 inches, heaved the shot put 17 feet, launched the javelin more than 50 feet and ran the 80-meter hurdles in 24:34.
And she says she’s not sure track is her best sport.
“It’s my ski trophies I take the most pride in,” said Valien, who still hits the slopes and competes in senior events.
But her focus now is on the National Seniors track meet later this month in Cleveland, and then Brazil.
“After that I’m going to hang it up,” Valien said.
That came as a shock to masters competitor Mike Washington, 63, who told Valien she’s a role model for everyone, young and old, who needs to get off the couch. His wife, Freddie Braxton, said it was Valien’s inspiration that persuaded her to take up masters track in 2006.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed Freddie Braxton as Freddie Grayton in the photo caption.
“I had to give it a try,” said Braxton, who’s still running.
Valien’s daughter, Roxanne, advised me to ignore her mom’s retirement claim.
“I’ve heard her say that before,” said Roxanne, but then her mother will go to a meet, check out the competition in the next oldest age group and gear up for the next big meet.
At last week’s event, it got too cold, dark and wet for Valien to do the long jump. But she gave it everything at the high jump pit, with the bar set at 3 feet.
Back-stepping away from the pit slowly, Valien eyed her target, and then trotted forward lightly — step, step, step — like a cat after a bird. She planted, arched and missed, knocking the bar to the mat.
Time to give up?
Not this young lady. She did it again, and again, and again, failing each time but only becoming more determined.
Darkness fell, or she’d have been there all night, I think.
She may be there now.
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