All of the thousands of leaps he’s made over the course of his still-developing high-jump career led Virginia Tech’s Ronnie Black to one of the ultimate stages in the sport last June, and it was too much for him to handle.
Scanning the competition in Eugene, Ore., at the U.S. Olympic Trials, he saw some of his heroes in the sport — professionals such as Jamie Nieto and Jesse Williams; guys who would be headed to the Olympics in London while Black would sit at home.
After failing to get out of the preliminary round of the trials, he came back to Virginia to rest an aching left heel and ponder how he could make himself better. He’s figured it out.
“It was really tough,” Black said of his inability to clear 6 feet, 10 3/4 inches at the trials — a jump he can clear in practice with a short approach. “I was more let down in myself because I was so star-struck going into it.
“To go there and just be star-struck, and to go there and not want to be competitive and just be satisfied with qualifying, isn’t a mind-set I can see myself in.”
As he prepares for Saturday’s college high-jump championships in the prestigious Penn Relays in Philadelphia, Black is as confident as he’s ever been. He has good reason to saunter into the meet with a little swagger.
Last Friday, he won the Atlantic Coast Conference outdoor high-jump championship by clearing 7-3 3/4. It was a jump that tied him for the seventh-best outdoor jump in the country this year by a collegian.
In March, he posted his personal-best by clearing 7-5 at the NCAA indoor championships. It was tied for the sixth-best indoor jump in the country by a collegian, but it only got him fourth place in an exceptionally talented field of jumpers. Still, the personal best helped him realize he’s headed in the right direction.
Perhaps most impressive is he’s finding time to hone his skills while finishing a college career that will see him graduate cum laude with majors in psychology and pre-pharmacy.
“I feel like it’s just a matter of time before I have another big jump,” said Black, who will be joined at the Penn Relays by Tech teammates Jeff Artis-Gray (110-meter hurdles and long jump) and Leah Nugent (110-meter hurdles and 400-meter hurdles).
“Of course, you can only be but so satisfied with your accomplishments when you realize what’s going on on a grand level of things.”
Black, a four-time All-American in his event as well as an academic All-American, has the perspective of a young man who has had to struggle to achieve success. During the 2011-12 indoor season, he developed a pinched nerve and spur in the heel of his left (takeoff) foot.
He dealt with the injury all winter and still managed to post what was then a personal-best of 7-3 1/4, but the consistently strong jumps weren’t there for him. He was up-and-down during the winter and spring.
In the outdoor season last year, he wore a protective boot for two weeks heading into the ACC championship meet, but he only managed to clear 6-8 3/4 in the ACC meet. He went on to clear 6-11 1/2 at the Penn Relays, but bounced back to win the NCAA East Regional meet at 7-2 1/4 before finishing ninth at the NCAA championships at 7-2 1/2.
After the personal disappointment of the Olympic Trials, he got away from the sport for a few months. He watched YouTube videos and gave himself time to get better — or heal as much as possible.
“They were injuries where we couldn’t figure out what to do,” Black said. “It was pretty much take time off. With the collegiate schedule, it’s even hard to find two weeks to take time off.”
He’s still taking 1,600 milligrams of ibuprofen a day, dipping his legs in ice baths and heading to treatment sessions as often as he can to manage his injury.
Though his goals are greater than they were when he first arrived at Tech after transferring from Virginia Commonwealth in 2010, he’s able to see how far he’s come. To Black, it seems like decades ago when he was struggling to clear his personal-best of 6-8 at Menchville.
“(Tech jumps) coach (Charles) Foster always says, ‘How soon we forget,’ ” Black said.
Foster remembers the most daunting goal for Black wasn’t anywhere near his current top mark of 7-5. Not long ago, that kind of jump only existed in dreams.
“The main barrier for him was 7 feet,” Foster said. “Seven feet was a real omen for him and a real stumbling block. He would get all the way up to it, but he couldn’t get 7 feet.
“We sat down and I challenged his manhood. I said, ‘The issue is you’re scared.’ I had to go that route with him. He manned up. Once he crossed 7 feet, you could see the gleam in his eyes. From that point on, he’s hardly looked back at all.”
With new heights in mind, Black believes the best is yet to come. He competes in a sport where the greats can remain competitive into their 30s, so he’s willing to put a career as a pharmacist on hold for a while.
The next time he gets a shot at the Olympic Trials in 2016, which is one of the ultimate aspirations on his list, he’ll be ready.
“I feel so much more in control this year,” said Black, who also will return to Eugene in early June for the NCAA championships. “Last year, I could try all I wanted, but sometimes your body puts limits on you. This year, it’s just a mental game. It’s a matter of deciding when I want to jump higher. It’s nice to be able to manage your performance.”