SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Ralph Spry was a wistful witness to the men's long jump at the U.S. track and field trials for the Olympic Games last night.
Spry is the head coach at Auburn University, which he guided to third place at the NCAA championships last month, the program's best outdoor finish ever. A generation ago, he was the most accomplished horizontal jumper the Baltimore area has ever produced.
Old Mill High had a powerhouse team in 1978, when Spry set a state record and reached 49 feet, 6 1/2 inches in the triple jump. He attended two junior colleges before he landed at the University of Mississippi. As a senior at Ole Miss, he set an NCAA meet record in the long jump with a wind-aided 27 feet, 5 1/4 inches.
A year later, he was 10th at the U.S. trials, and in 1988 his military career and a hip injury left him behind the best field the trials has ever seen. The American entry that year consisted of four-time gold medalist Carl Lewis, Larry Myricks and Mike Powell, three years before he took the world record out to 29-4 1/2 .
The current crop of American jumpers is a tad more pedestrian, and the United States could be shut out of the medals in Sydney, Australia, for the first time in the history of its Olympic participation.
"I was around during the best era the event has ever seen," Spry said. "Everybody seemed to be jumping 28 feet. Sometimes I kick myself, because I was trying to mix jumping with my military career, and that was not easy to do against those guys."
Spry, 40, went through the ROTC program at Ole Miss, spent nearly a decade in the Army as an infantry officer and is still a major in the reserves. He left active duty in 1992, served as an assistant coach at Florida and South Carolina, and became the head coach at Auburn three years ago.
Ironically, Spry lets one of his assistants coach the jumpers at Auburn. He oversees a big-budget Southeastern Conference program and coaches the sprinters. Baltimorean Bernard Williams won the NCAA 100-meter dash for Florida, but in the semifinals, his 9.99 clocking was bested by Auburn's Coby Miller, who ran 9.98.
They were the first American-born collegians to break 10 seconds. Williams was seventh in Saturday's 100 final, while Miller couldn't get out of the semis. Both will run in the 200 later this week.
Good 400 for Jones
The subplot was hidden by the fright she received in the long jump, but the results of the 400 Sunday were equally significant to Marion Jones.
The 24-year-old is out to become the first track and field athlete to win five gold medals in a single Olympics. She won the 100 Saturday and overcame some runway problems to take the long jump Sunday, when the finish of the 400 boded well for her need to be included on the American 4x400 relay.
The event was won by Latasha Colander-Richardson in 49.87, and the fastest time run by an American this year remains the 49.59 Jones posted in April.
Politics and the promotional aspect aside, it's obvious that the United States could use her in the relay in Sydney. The U.S. coaches can name anyone who competes at the trials in any event while selecting their six-person relay squads, and Jones' selection in both relays should be formalized early next week.
It doesn't hurt that Colander-Richardson and Michelle Collins, who was third in the 400, train in Raleigh, N.C., under Trevor Graham, who is Jones' coach.
Last night's 5,000 qualifying included Bob Kennedy, who's trying to make his third Olympic team. Kennedy had the nation's fastest time in the 10,000 last year, but a minor injury he suffered in a May auto accident led him to withdraw from that event and focus on his specialty. ... Michelle Rohl made her third Olympic team in the 20-kilometer walk Sunday. She's 34, and a mother of three. ... The meet will take a recess today and tomorrow, and resume Thursday with Day One of the decathlon.