Thirty years ago a high jumper from Glens Falls, NY is staring at history as she focuses on a bar that is three steps and ten strides away. That challenging piece of fiberglass is all that separates Shelly Choppa from becoming the top high school jumper ever not only in New York but also the USA. She is the lone survivor of a grueling contest in the HJ pits that has been marked by by heat, humidity, and throngs of wayward cicadas that have been making thwacks on her forehead.
The date is June 16, 1990 and the venue is the Keebler International Prep Invitational in Elmhurst, IL, more than 800 miles from Choppa's home. The Keebler is the one of the top two late-season high school invites in the nation along with the Golden West in Sacramento, CA, and they are kind of precursors to the New Balance Outdoor Nationals that would begin in a limited format one year later first in Van Nuys, CA. The legendary coach Joe Newton of York HS in Elmhurst has been in charge of the Keebler since its beginning in 1972 and the meet has produced a long list of huge performances from future Olympians. Choppa is vying to write a new entry in the books in her first attempt here at the national record.
Coming in as the third-ranked jumper at the meet and in the country, Choppa has already exceeded expectations by winning the competition with a first attempt clearance at 5-11.5. But now, though she is the 1990 NY States champ and has cleared 6-0 a number of times including as a sophomore in the 1988 state championship (a record still standing 32 years later), she is facing new territory at 6-0.75 for the national record. She missed her three attempts at that height at the recent state championship, and she knows she will need "the perfect jump" to become the nation's best.
As Choppa begins her steps, she is feeling the "groove" and the belief as she will later say of, "If you really want it, you will find a way to get things done."
Shelly Choppa started high jumping as a freshman outdoors in 1986, and she well remembers that the early attempts had some issues. "In my first jump at a meet, I completely missed the mat and landed on the asphalt. That hurt." Despite the occasional early mishap which is a given for any high jumper in a notoriously unforgiving event that requires participants to keep tight control of way too many body parts (shoulders, back, butt, calves, heels), Choppa forged on and by her sophomore year she was winning comfortably at heights that got up to 5-6. To that point, all her jumping results were from outdoor season meets.
Choppa's performances came to the attention of an industrial arts teacher and former basketball coach Joe Dudley at Hadley-Luzerne High School, about 25 minutes driving distance to the west of Glens Falls. About ten years before, Dudley was involved in a car accident that had left him a paraplegic, able to move around only in a wheelchair. A guy who had always been committed to helping others and now seeing a budding star on the horizon, Dudley read up on the techniques and training for the high jump. After viewing the young Choppa's jumping style, he became convinced that he could help her get to much higher heights and he contacted her and her parents about lending his coaching time.
Dudley's offer to the Choppas was a little puzzling to them for the simple reason that a coach usually is at the competitions that his athletes are performing in. Dudley's limited mobility allowed him to be physically present only as a practice coach, if Choppa was willing to make the trips to use the limited facilities at Hadley-Luzerne. Coaching for actual competitions would have to come second-hand through Choppa's parents, who needed to absorb Dudley's practice advice and his plan for the next meet. Of course Choppa herself was the main sponge for the info, as she became totally focused on practice routines, warm-up exercises, and all the nitty-gritty details of what a high jumper needs to do while making their semi-circular approach to the bar and launching herself upward.
By the later part of Choppa's sophomore season in 1988, the mix of leaping exercises such as net swats around the basketball rim and take-off techniques were having big rewards. She soared from just being a local star of eastern Section 2 to a big talking point in NY track. The highlight came at the outdoor States championship where she set the still current meet record of 6-0 and topped Clarence senior and reigning champ Allison Smith (Clarence), who in 1987 set the still existing indoor record of 6-1 at States in March.
As the new leader of the NY high jumping scene, Choppa launched into her junior year in great form. Because Glens Falls did not have an indoor program and local high school track associations were concerned that she would "take away points from teams," Choppa had to travel far and wide to big invitationals such as Yale and Brown to get into meets. She racked up nine wins on the season and won at indoor States with a jump of 5-10 and later the National Scholastic championship at 5-9.
Outdoor season in 1989 got off to a promising start as Choppa jumped 6-0 in early May, but by the end of the season she was hurting as stress fractures in a knee kept her out of the outdoor States meet and sidelined her in a cast for six weeks in the early summer. By August she had recovered enough to accept an invite to attend Olympic Training Center activities in Boulder CO. She returned home with a renewed mission for her senior year.
Choppa again roared through the indoor season and captured a repeat States title. Outdoor season brought much of the same action as she took the outdoor States title and got herself set for the big Keebler competition in mid June. Entering as only the third seeded jumper, she sewed up the win with a leap of 5-11.5 on a tough day for the jumpers. Having worked out with Joe Dudley that the height she would go to as a lone competitor would be a quarter inch above the national record, she set herself for the big jump.
Choppa got everything right with a great lean and flip over the bar at 6-0.75. The commentators believed she could have made 6-3 with her clearance on the attempt. As a video is worth a thousand words, we will insert here the film of her "perfect jump" to the national record and her later interview.
In July of 1990, Choppa competed in the Junior Olympic Trials and tied for the top finishing 2nd on misses, which earned her a place on the US team that traveled to Bulgaria for the World Championship later that summer. From there it was off to the warmer climes of Arizona State that fall for a degree in education and four more years of high jumping with the Sun Devils. She earned All-American honors there in her junior year of 1993.
Marrying her college sweetheart Rob Anderson and transforming into Shelly Choppa Anderson, she ironically found herself teaching at an Elmhurst IL middle school shortly after graduation due to her husband's Chicago connections. She also spent some time as an assistant field coach focused on the high jump.
In the years since, Anderson has returned to Arizona in the area southeast of Phoenix around Chandler and Gilbert, and has worked as an elementary school teacher and school administrator. Her sons Zach and Dylan got some early experience in the high Jump pits, but as very tall guys with basketball skills, their own athletic leanings have been elsewhere.
Anderson's NY outdoor record has withstood all efforts to top it during the last 30 years. Her advice to would-be record setters is simple, "You have to get out there and do the work. There is no instant gratification and there will always be someone better than you, but if you work hard enough for it, you will find a way."