Like all high jumpers, Virginia Tech's Ronnie Black wants to raise the bar. He's cleared impressive heights, set school records and earned All-America honors.
But he wants more. He wants to go higher.
He wants to go 4.0.
"I had a 3.87 last semester," Black said of his pursuit of classroom perfection.
"He was real disappointed because in organic chemistry he got a B-plus," said Black's mother, Helena.
A junior majoring in chemistry and psychology, Black had just completed a three-hour lab and was preparing for track practice as we spoke. He competes in academics as fervently as he does in athletics.
"Excelling in the classroom is just as important to me as excelling on the track," said Black, a Menchville High graduate.
Two weeks ago, Black won the Virginia Tech Invitational indoor meet with a personal best and school record leap of 7 feet, 31/4 inches. The previous Hokies mark of 7-1 had stood for 29 years.
Last year, Black set Tech's outdoor record of 7-11/2 at the Penn Relays and finished seventh at the NCAA Championships to claim his first All-America honor.
"We both have a real clear understanding that we can go as high as we think we can," said Charles Foster, who coaches the Hokies' jumpers. "He's a gung-ho kid. He does like to train, there's no doubt about it.
"We didn't think he'd go 7-3 quite this early. … He thinks he can go 7-5, and I'm saying 7-5? He says, 'Coach, 7-5 and 4.0.' Who am I to squelch those dreams?"
Black hails from a track family. Helena ran the 400 meters and long jumped throughout Europe while in the Air Force. Black's sister, Christie, competed in the heptathlon and pentathlon at North Carolina State, and while at Menchville she teamed with Yvette Lewis and two others to win a national indoor title in the 4x55-meter shuttle hurdle relay at the 2003 Nike Invitational.
At Menchville, Black cleared 6-8, good but not great, and played volleyball just for fun. He matriculated at VCU and after a runner-up finish in the Colonial Athletic Association meet decided to get more serious about track.
Part of Black's transformation was mental. Part was physical — as a teen he grew from 5-foot-8 to 6-5.
Seeing better facilities and competition at Virginia Tech, Black transferred.
"He came for a visit, and we liked what we saw," Foster said. "We liked his ambition, his lofty goals. I don't put any limits on my athletes.
"He's forewarned me. He's said, 'Coach don't be surprised if you see my name in lights.' "
A high jumper's name in lights? That's a status reserved for record-holders and/or Olympians.
And this is where Black's ambition becomes tricky.
The winner of the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials, Jesse Williams, jumped 7-61/2 . Runners-up Jamie Mieto and Andra Manson cleared 7-51/4 .
Keep in mind, an inch in the high jump is like 10 yards on the football field. And also understand that Black hopes to attend pharmacy school, a commitment of 5-6 years, including residency.
"It's the ultimate goal in track," Black said of the Olympics, "but there are so many stages."
Foster knows. He finished fourth in the 110-meter hurdles at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He made the United States team again in 1980, but President Carter elected to boycott the Moscow Games.
"To go all the way to the Olympic Games, it's going to take a whole lot of preparation and it's going to take a lot of good fortune and what we call luck, too," Foster said. "I know that because I've trekked through those thorny bushes, all those things that can turn against you in an instant."
More immediate goals surround the ACC and NCAA meets, indoor and outdoor, this year. Tech is the defending conference indoor champion and will need points from Black to repeat.
Foster applauds Black's training habits, his embrace of not only the grunt work — running stadium steps, enduring wind sprints and pulling sleds — but also the technical refinements to approach and takeoff.
"That's one of the biggest things you get from Coach Foster is where he's been and the accolades that he has," Black said. "He's been around the block so many times. He just knows the physics and biomechanics and is able to apply it to the high jump."
Black's father, Ronnie Sr., offered sound advice during the year that his son strived to raise his personal best from 6-11 to 7-feet. Don't obsess over 7-feet, he said. In fact, raise the bar higher than 7-feet and see what happens.
What happened was 7-11/2 and 7-31/4 .
"He said the sky is the limit," Black said. "It's so cliché and corny, but it's true."
Ronnie Sr. and Helena are retired Air Force. Their son was born in Las Vegas, and the family lived in Germany and Italy before settling in Newport News.
"I'm more excited about his studies," said Helena, who's pursuing her Doctor of Business Administration.
Black hopes to attend pharmacy school at the University of Florida, where the climate is more suited to year-'round outdoor training.
"I love Blacksburg to death," he said, "but it's cold out here. I plan on going somewhere I don't have to wear a North Face jacket."
Black also plans to continue competing as an athlete and student.
"If you're going for first place in track," he said, "why not first place in class?"Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun