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Joni Huntley's name still carved in Oregon track and field record books 50 years later

Joni Huntley is a two-time Olympian with a bronze medal and a career full of high jump records at every level in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Some of those records lasted for decades. Two still stand.

She broke barriers for female athletes across the country in the early days of Title IX and is considered a track and field trailblazer, at one time the best high jumper in the United States and one of the best in the world.

Joni Huntley clears 6-foot in the high jump on May 18, 1974, at the Oregon Class 2A state championships in Springfield. The meet record still stands 50 years later.
Joni Huntley clears 6-foot in the high jump on May 18, 1974, at the Oregon Class 2A state championships in Springfield. The meet record still stands 50 years later.

She set the bar high in high school despite a lack of facilities and formal training, making what she did 50 years ago at the 1974 OSAA state track and field championships even more remarkable.

Huntley won three state titles, broke two national prep records, and single-handedly lifted Sheridan High School to a share of the 2A team championship.

Her 6-foot high jump established a national record. It was the oldest state meet record in any classification recognized by the OSAA until 2013 and still stands in what is now 4A. She also set a national record in the 110-yard hurdles.

Huntley scored all 38 of her team’s points that May weekend at Silke Field in Springfield.

“That was fun,” she said recently from her home just outside Newberg. “I hadn’t done much to that point, hadn’t gone to the Olympics. That was a big day.”

Huntley set other records, won national collegiate titles, and earned the bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

She hesitates to rank the accomplishments but said there was something extra special about high school and that state meet performance her senior year.

Joni Huntley during a photo shoot leading up to the 1974 Oregon Class 2A track and field championships. She won three state titles and set two national prep records at the meet.
Joni Huntley during a photo shoot leading up to the 1974 Oregon Class 2A track and field championships. She won three state titles and set two national prep records at the meet.

Making do without a track or high jump pit

Huntley grew up in Sheridan, then a small town of about 2,000. She began competing in track and field events at age 9 with no formal coaching, only support from her parents, Ralph and Ann. Dad had an insurance business. Mom was a schoolteacher.

Her high school did not have a track, let alone a high jump pit.

She remembers working out in the gym, in hallways and on the football field with her teammates, even practicing the high jump on a wood frame in the school parking lot. Foam-filled cotton bags were used for the landing area.

Her dad helped rig the makeshift pit, having to drive out of town to get the materials.

The Sheridan track and field coaches knew little about the sport. They were teachers paid to supervise student-athletes after school. But with a whole lot of talent, just as much determination, and a bit of direction from a student-teacher, Huntley excelled.

She used a scissor kick technique until her freshman year when that student-teacher drove her 38 miles to Pacific University in Forest Grove to watch a film about the “Fosbury Flop.” It was a relatively new technique named after Dick Fosbury, the 1968 Olympic gold medalist who perfected the style of jumping “backward” over the bar. Fosbury narrated the film.

The next year, using the Fosbury flop, Huntley won the first of three straight state titles.

She was not the only track and field standout in the family. Older brother Jerry (1973 pole vault) and younger sister Sandy (1976 long jump and 1978 shot put) both won individual state titles.

Joni won six from 1972 to 1974 — three in the high jump and one each in the long jump, 110-yard hurdles and 100-yard dash.

Joni Huntley prepares to work out leading up to the 1974 Oregon state track and field championships. She went on to place first in three events and second in another, single-handedly lifting Sheridan to a share of the team title.
Joni Huntley prepares to work out leading up to the 1974 Oregon state track and field championships. She went on to place first in three events and second in another, single-handedly lifting Sheridan to a share of the team title.

Going the distance to chase Olympic dreams

Huntley’s Olympic dreams began early and were solidified the summer after her sophomore year when she qualified for the 1972 U.S. Olympic trials. She was 15.

Even though she no-heighted, failing to make a valid jump, it did not derail her dreams. If anything, it made her more determined.

She continued to compete in national and international meets, but the real work took place closer to home in Monmouth and Corvallis. She went there to practice on a real high jump pit.

Huntley spent an afternoon a week her junior year at what is now Western Oregon University, leaving school early, getting out of shorthand class, and driving her dad’s Chevy pickup.

The 25-mile road trips to Monmouth paid off. She repeated as the 2A state high jump champion in 1973.

She traveled further her senior year, training on Saturdays at Oregon State University. It was about a 48-mile drive from Sheridan to Corvallis. A high jumper for the OSU men’s track team, Glen Stone, volunteered to coach her.

Early in 1974, in the weeks leading up to her final state track meet, she set an American women’s indoor record with a leap of 6 feet, ½ inch at a developmental meet in Oakland, California. She made the height on her first try, becoming the first U.S. woman to clear 6 feet.

She also traveled to Japan for an exhibition series and won the high jump at a U.S.-Russia meet in Moscow.

Joni Huntley, who traveled to Oregon State University in Corvallis to practice in a high jump pit because Sheridan High School didn't have one, uses the Fosbury Flop technique as captured here in a series of photographs published May 1, 1974, in The Oregon Statesman.
Joni Huntley, who traveled to Oregon State University in Corvallis to practice in a high jump pit because Sheridan High School didn't have one, uses the Fosbury Flop technique as captured here in a series of photographs published May 1, 1974, in The Oregon Statesman.

In between and before the state meet, Huntley remembers doing countless interviews and photo shoots.

A half-page spread in the sports section of The Oregon Statesman included photographs of one of her workouts at OSU. Three frames break down her jumping form.

The headline: “Sheridan Lass on Top of Nation as High Jumper.”

Other photos showed her running in the halls of Sheridan High with teammates and studying in the school library. Huntley was an all-around student-athlete, ranking second in her class of 53.

On a side note, she sewed and made the pants she was wearing in the library photo.

'Charmed' career includes long list of accomplishments

Huntley did not wilt under the spotlight. She dominated the competition in high school, with her high jump marks good enough to have won state titles at any classification.

After graduating, she continued to excel on a bigger stage, reportedly bettering her American record four times in 1974 and 1975. The timeline of her accomplishments is a bit fuzzy, though.

Huntley tried looking up some of the details on the Internet while being interviewed by the Statesman Journal, with mixed results. She said she has a collection of scrapbooks in storage that could provide clarity, as could the medal boards her dad made, also in storage.

But she does have access to a silver charm bracelet, which she thought she lost in a move a couple of years ago but found in a safety deposit box.

A silver charm bracelet documents many of the records set and awards won during Joni Huntley's high jump career from state titles at Sheridan High School in the early 1970s to the bronze medal at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
A silver charm bracelet documents many of the records set and awards won during Joni Huntley's high jump career from state titles at Sheridan High School in the early 1970s to the bronze medal at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

“Every time I jumped higher, my mom and dad would buy me a silver charm,” Huntley said.

A family friend gave her the bracelet and first charm, and her parents carried on the tradition.

The bracelet has 38 disc charms, each a half-inch to an inch in diameter and inscribed with the year, location and height she cleared. On one end is a tiny silver airplane commemorating her first flight to a competition in New York City and at the other a disc embellished with the Olympic rings.

Some of the charms signify awards she received. Side by side are disks for the 1974 Johnny Carpenter Award for the Oregon high school athlete of the year and the 1974 Hayward Award for the state’s top amateur athlete. Huntley was the first to win both awards in the same year.

Huntley still holds Oregon State high jump record

Huntley's path to the Olympics returned to Corvallis. Attending Oregon State was her destiny because she wanted to train under head track and field coach Berny Wagner, who became a household name after coaching Fosbury to the gold medal.

Wagner drummed up some financial support for Huntley through a university booster group. She was the first female to receive an athletic scholarship at OSU.

Huntley remembers it not sitting well with other female track athletes, who believed money corrupted sports.

Joni Huntley won six individual state track and field titles in the early 1970s, including three in the high jump, despite Sheridan High School not having a track.
Joni Huntley won six individual state track and field titles in the early 1970s, including three in the high jump, despite Sheridan High School not having a track.

Until she arrived on campus, no women had been allowed on the OSU track during the men’s practice.

“They knew I was serious, so they allowed me to train with them, and they coached me,” Huntley said.

She won national collegiate championships in the high jump and long jump her first year at Oregon State. Her 1975 high jump of 6 feet, 2 ¾ inches set an OSU record that still stands.

Huntley left Oregon State after one year. She was ranked third in the world, had her sights set on the 1976 Olympics, and Wagner had departed to develop a track and field program in Saudi Arabia.

She moved to Los Angeles to work with Olympic assistant coach David Rodda and enrolled at Long Beach State.

Bronze medal performance gets overshadowed

Huntley trained for three Olympics and jumped in two. She placed a disappointing fifth in 1976 in Montreal, was plagued with injuries in 1980 when the U.S. boycotted the Olympics anyway, and then won the bronze medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Medaling was a bit of a surprise. Huntley barely made the U.S. team and was ranked 28th out of 31 high jumpers entering the competition. She came from behind, three times clearing personal bests, with the final one of 6-5½ earning her bronze.

Joni Huntley, who grew up in Sheridan, clears the high jump bar on her way to a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Joni Huntley, who grew up in Sheridan, clears the high jump bar on her way to a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

After the medal presentation, she headed to "meet the press" in the interview area under the Los Angeles Coliseum but found it empty.

“I walked in one end, didn’t see a single person, and kept right on walking out the other end,” she said in an AP story published in the Statesman Journal. “You see, the Mary Decker thing had just happened … and everybody from the press was off on that story.”

Decker’s golden hopes ended when she took a controversial tumble near the end of the 3,000 meters,

Huntley took being shunned by the media in stride. She later pointed out she set three personal records that day and had not bettered 6-2¾ outdoors in nine years.

She was grateful for the snub, which allowed her to almost immediately join her parents and her husband John, whom she married in 1983. She had her medal with her and passed it around for everyone to see — not just her family, but all the fans sitting near them in the stands.

A month later, Huntley received a hero’s welcome in Sheridan.

Joni Huntley gets a heroes welcome in her hometown of Sheridan just weeks after winning the bronze medal in the high jump at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles,
Joni Huntley gets a heroes welcome in her hometown of Sheridan just weeks after winning the bronze medal in the high jump at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles,

Hundreds showed up at the high school football stadium to celebrate her accomplishments. The crowd gave her a standing ovation, with a tearful Huntley saying: “I don't know what to say except thanks.”

Officials presented her with a key to the city and one speaker said while Sheridan could not possibly equal the reception she received in larger cities, they welcomed her home “not because of the bronze (but) because of the gold in her heart.”

It was not the first time her hometown showed its support. Most of the town signed a telegram she received before the 1976 Olympics. One time, the town sent a marching band to meet her at the airport.

"That is the most amazing thing to have the support of an entire city," Huntley said, "and I felt it."

High school success launches Hall of Fame career

Huntley displays the bronze medal in a glass box in the pantry of her home, out of sight for visitors unless asked to retrieve the coffee or cereal. She and John live just outside of Newberg on 14 acres with horses, dogs and cats.

She continued to compete for a few years after the Olympics, even after having her first child in 1987. But trying to jump with a crying baby in the stands proved too much at a competition in California. Her daughter was 5 months old and could not be consoled even when her husband brought her down to the infield.

Huntley retired later that year.

After turning in her spikes, she worked on a master’s degree in education at Portland State University, where her husband was a professor. She previously earned a graduate certificate in gerontology from PSU and an undergraduate degree in physical education from Long Beach State.

Oregon State has always claimed her even though her time there was short. She was inducted into the OSU Athletics Hall of Fame (1988).

Huntley is in just about every hall of fame she is eligible for, including the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame (1990), the National High School Hall of Fame (2016), and the Pac-12 Hall of Honor (2020). She also was named to the 51-member Pac-12 All-Century Women’s Track & Field team (2016).

Joni Huntley and her family, photographed in 2020. From left to right: Daughter Sheridan Rueter, husband John Rueter, Joni holding grandson Finley Akin, daughter Courtney Akin with husband Brad Akin.
Joni Huntley and her family, photographed in 2020. From left to right: Daughter Sheridan Rueter, husband John Rueter, Joni holding grandson Finley Akin, daughter Courtney Akin with husband Brad Akin.

She and John are both retired. They have two daughters and two grandsons, ages 2 and 5, and will celebrate their 41st wedding anniversary in July.

Huntley, who will be 68 in August, loves gardening and raises carnivorous plants. John answered her cell phone when the Statesman Journal first reached out.

“She’s out in the field,” he said.

When Huntley returned the call, she said she had just come in from working on fencing in the pasture, appreciating the break to talk about her career, especially that record-setting day 50 years ago at the state championships.

Her 6-0 high jump is still a meet record in what is now 4A. She cleared 6-¾ before she finished high school, which still ranks No. 2 on Oregon's all-time list for girls.

“Everything was built on that,” Huntley said. “The success gets you more motivated to try harder and work harder, and actually opens more opportunities. High school was everything to me.

“Think about it, I was so young and jumping quite high for the American record and traveling the world as a high school student representing the United States. It was quite amazing. I think it was the most exciting time.”

Capi Lynn is a senior reporter for the Statesman Journal. Send comments, questions and tips to her at clynn@statesmanjournal.com, and follow her work on Twitter @CapiLynn and Facebook @CapiLynnSJ.

This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Two Joni Huntley Oregon track and field records still stand