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Kerry Eggers on Sports: Pac-12 to honor former Oregon State, Olympic women's high jump great from Sheridan

Once upon a time, a high school girl from Sheridan held the American record in the high jump.

Some years later, she won a bronze medal in the Olympic Games.

This week in Las Vegas, Joni Huntley will take her latest bow for a remarkable career in track and field.

Huntley — she's a grandmother now — is being honored as Oregon State's representative among those being inducted into the Pac-12 Conference Hall of Honor.

Joni Huntley with her Olympic medal.Oregon State competed in the Pac-8 when Huntley, now 63, won the high jump and the long jump in what was then called the Association for Intercollege Athletics for Women (AIAW) Championships as a freshman in 1975.

By then, Huntley was an American record-holder. As a senior at Sheridan High, she set the U.S. record at 6-0 1/4, becoming the first American to clear 6 feet. She bettered the American record four times in 1974 and '75, served as U.S. champion for four consecutive years (1974-77), won gold at the 1975 Pan American Games in Mexico City and was ranked third in the world that year.

Huntley placed fifth in the 1976 Olympic Games at Montreal and, much later in her career, earned a bronze medal in the 1984 Olympic Games at Los Angeles.

After she retired from jumping, Huntley taught kindergarten for Portland Public Schools for 25 years. Now, she is teaching physical education one day at week at Forest Park Elementary.

"I just love working," said Huntley, who has been married to her husband, John Rueter, for 37 years. "It gives me purpose. I really enjoy with kids. I don't have to work; I like being around the children and the teachers and the community."

Full disclosure: Huntley's Pac-12 award is personal for me.

I was a senior when Joni was a ballyhooed freshman at OSU in 1974-75. I watched her nearly win the national championship for the Beavers single-handedly. I interviewed her while working for the OSU student TV station, which was covering the event. The school record she set that year (6-2 3/4) still stands, some 45 years later. And her long jump best that season (19-6 1/4) remains fifth on OSU's all-time list. What an athlete.

Huntley was a phenom in an era when women's athletic teams were in their infancy at the college level. There were no opportunities for financial aid for female student-athletes. AIAW participants were prohibited from receiving athletic scholarships.

Three years earlier, Mary Budke — also from a small Oregon town, Dayton — had arrived on campus with similar credentials to Huntley. Budke, who became an eight-time Oregon Women's Amateur champion and a U.S. Amateur queen, was one of the best amateur golfers in the country. When she started school in 1971, OSU didn't even have a women's team.

In 1972, Budke won the Hayward Award as the state's top amateur athlete — male or female. The next year, the Beavers' first-ever women's team, led by Budke, finished third in the AIAW Championships.

In 1974, OSU freshman Huntley won the Hayward Award. With the inception of Title IX in 1972, athletic scholarships for females were now permitted. Before the 1974-75 academic year, $1,500 scholarships were awarded to Budke and Huntley through the university's booster group, the Beaver Club, making them the first female student-athletes to receive financial aid at the school.

Today, Huntley and Rueter — who have two grown daughters — live on a 12-acre farm off Northwest Skyline Road. Her athletic career is over.

"I have two new hips," she said with a laugh. And a grandson, Finnley, almost 2.

On the day Joni and I talked, she had been out buying 11 railroad ties and 25 bags of cement.

"We're tearing down old barns and building new ones," she said.

Huntley and Rueter have lived there for 25 years.

"We have horses and chickens and dogs and cats," she said. "We absolutely love it."

Joni and her hubby will be in Las Vegas this week for her well-deserved honor during the Pac-12 men's basketball tournament.

"We're excited," she said. "It will be fun. We'll get to see people and relive the past."Joni Huntley spent her work career teaching kindergarten in Portland.

Joni was an unlikely athletic star, growing up in rural Sheridan, then a community of about 2,500 located in Yamhill County, west of McMinnville along Oregon Route 18. Her father, Ralph, was an insurance agent. Her mother, Ann, offered beneficial genes.

"She was a good athlete," Joni said.

Huntley and her older brother, Jerry, loved running and jumping as children.

"We did everything, just for fun," she said.

One of the first activities was the high jump.

"My dad built some high jump standards, and we'd carry them on our bicycles to the elementary school a few blocks away," Huntley said. "We jumped over a bamboo pole and into a sawdust pit.

"Then my father stuffed these cotton bags with foam and we gave them to the school, so we'd have something to jump into. We'd pile those bags against the building on the asphalt parking lot and we'd run and jump into those mats. That's how we started jumping. We also hurdled in that parking lot."

At first, Huntley used the scissor style. Jerry employed a "scissor roll." During Joni's freshman year at Sheridan High, a student teacher took her to Pacific University in Forest Grove to watch a film about the "Fosbury Flop" — the backward jumping style that had taken Oregon State's Dick Fosbury to the Olympic title in 1968.

"It was the first time I'd seen the flop," Huntley said.

Jerry stayed with the western roll and, as a senior in 1973, won the state 3A title in the pole vault. Joni converted to the flop and, as a sophomore in 1972, won the first of three straight 3A girls high jump crowns at 5-8. She also won the first of three national junior championships.

That got her a berth in the '72 Olympic trials, where she failed to make the finals. The next year, Huntley set a national junior record of 5-10 1/2 — for perspective, Deanne Willson won the 1972 Olympic trials at 5-9 1/4 — and as a senior eclipsed the 6-foot barrier.

Joni was a natural for the event, a lanky 5-8 1/2, athletic and springy-legged.

"I was just built for it," she said. "I worked really hard, but as a person improves in something, you stay interested in it. I continued to improve, so that makes it much more interesting.

"There was no push from my parents, but they were always there, taking me wherever I needed to go and finding a coach if I needed a coach. "

As a senior, Huntley increased her personal record to 6-0 3/4, which still stands as a state record, but she wasn't just a high jumper. In her final high school meet, the state 3A championships, Huntley won the 100, 100 hurdles and high jump and was second in the long jump. Sheridan tied for the state title with 38 points — all scored by Joni.

It was almost pre-ordained that Huntley would attend Oregon State. She didn't want to go too far from home, and Corvallis was known as the "High Jump Capital of the U.S." at the time. Over a period of six years, coach Berny Wagner had assembled a group of seven 7-foot jumpers — all male, of course.

And another OSU jumper — Glen Stone, whose PR was 6-11 — had served as a pseudo-coach for Huntley when she was in high school.

"I'd get out of my shorthand class early and drive to Corvallis to work with him on Friday afternoons, and sometimes on Sundays," she said. "What a nice man."

Huntley was on a plane from Modesto, California, to Portland with several OSU jumpers and Wagner after a meet her senior year in high school.

"Berny and I talked, and I think he realized I was a serious athlete — just as serious as the guys — and had potential," she said.

Women weren't allowed on the OSU track at the time, but Wagner made an exception with Huntley.

"To allow me to get on that track, he had to open it up to women for their workouts," she said. "But they were never to train at the same time (as the men). I just trained with the men. I never trained with the women. I became part of the (men's) group as an athlete, not a female."

But Wagner left Oregon State after the 1975 season to coach in Saudi Arabia. Wagner's successor, Steve Simmons, "was good," Huntley said, "but he coached the roll."

"I had no one to train or work with me," she said. "I quit school in the middle of winter quarter and moved to L.A. in January 1976."

Huntley had a relationship with Long Beach State coach Dave Rodda, who was an Olympic team assistant coach, so she enrolled there. She came back to OSU for one term after the 1976 Olympics, but spent the rest of the time in Southern California until returning to Oregon for good in 1980.

"But my time at Oregon State were the best college years I had," Huntley sid. "When I was at Long Beach State, I lived away in an apartment far from campus and trained at a different place. My whole life there was segmented. Oregon State was the total package."

Huntley's Olympic experiences were very different.

She entered the 1976 Montreal Games as U.S. Olympic trials champion and ranked sixth in the world; she felt confident she could medal. She finished fifth in no small part, she believes, due to cheating by a competitor.

"It was absolutely horrible," Huntley said. "I was very upset. The girl from Romania (Cornelia Popescu-Papa, who finished eighth) was moving (competitors') marks during the competition."

Huntley said Canadian Julie White had seen Popescu-Papa's actions and alerted her to check her mark.

"I stopped the competition and asked to re-measure my mark," Huntley said. "I remeasured it. I turned around and (Popescu-Papa) had my mark in her hand and was moving it again. It was insane.

"Then I'm yelling and screaming at her, and all the officials come around and the whole competition stops. She'd been moving everyone's mark and no one really caught it."

Huntley missed once at 5-8 3/4 and twice at 5-11 1/4, then settled in and missed only once at the next three heights, finishing fifth at 6-2 1/4. She believes she missed the early jumps because of her marks being moved.

"I felt better than I'd ever felt in my life jumping-wise, and I couldn't understand the (early) misses," Huntley said. "I made my third try at (5-11 1/4), after (White) warned me to check the mark.

"Everybody was proud of me for getting fifth, but I knew I could have done better. I was a mental wreck. I had a tough time after that."

Huntley competed sporadically for the next few years and had a pair of plantar fascia surgeries. There was a U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. Joni worked as an assistant coach at Oregon State in 1981 and '82. In '82, she started training again and in '83, she placed third at both the U.S. championships and the Pan Am Games. She moved to L.A. in January of 1984 with the L.A. Games in mind. And training went well.

"I kind of surprised myself," Huntley said. "My husband was with me. I was training hard. I was eating right. Everything was good."

In the Olympic Trials at Eugene, Huntley finished third at 6-2 1/4, behind Louise Ritter and Pam Spencer. Huntley entered the L.A. Games ranked 28th among the 30 jumpers.

"But on that day, everything was good," she said. "Everything aligned."

West Germany's Ulrike Meyfarth won gold at 6-7 1/2, an Olympic record. Italy's Sara Simeoni (6-6 3/4) got the silver. Huntley, who had only two misses at previous heights, cleared 6-5 1/2 on her second attempt to gain the bronze. It was more than three inches higher than her previous outdoor best. Ritter finished eighth and Spencer 11th.

Huntley, who had just turned 28, retired soon thereafter to a career in education. She had, after all, realized her dream. This week in Vegas, she'll take time to reflect on all the special moments.

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@kerryeggers


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