State Record Snapshot - Sanya Owolabi Flies in Triple Jump

While there might not be much track going on in New York State, there is plenty of history to pore through. In our time off, we are looking to revisit all of the State Records for the Outdoor Season. Who these athletes were, where their marks came from, and where are they now. Twice a week, we'll be releasing "Snapshots Of A State Record," where you can learn what it takes, to be put your mark on history. Tune in!

We look here at the third-oldest record still on the books for the boys. Enjoy!

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Sanya Owolabi is jumping for his country on July 4th, 1978. Lining up on the runway at the Donetsk sports stadium in the USSR (now Ukraine), he is hoping to launch something that will set off the fireworks in the triple jump during one of the annual US-USSR World Junior competitions. In the 1970s, even at the 19-and-under level these American vs. Soviet track and field matches have an intense atmosphere of patriotic fervor around them that borders on war-time feelings, and the pressures on every competitor can be paralyzing, especially when far from home.

Owolabi is also jumping very much for himself and history on this day. For two years he has been undefeated and nearly alone by himself at the top of the scholastic triple-jumping scene. But he has also been chasing the eight-year-old outdoor high school TJ record during his senior season. After missing the record by an inch three weeks before, he appeared to have blown it away by 7 inches at a meet in Chicago. But the two governing bodies of high school track have refused to recognize his clear record for separate reasons. The US-USSR World Junior competition is Owolabi's last chance to stick a jump that the scholastic track federations will finally have to accept, and not stick him at second best.

Owolabi heads down the runway and takes the hop, then step, and then the jump that will carry him far out into the pit. When he lands he knows he has pulled off one big grand finale, and that the Russian wind gauges at least are operational, and that he at last has a mark that the AAU will have to recognize as the best ever by a high school athlete. The long journey to the top is over, and a 53-4.25 that is 10 inches over the previous national record has given him the gold. On a nice day for the American guys that has also seen fellow New Yorker John Gregorek pick up a win in the 3K steeplechase, the celebrations can begin.

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The son of a Nigerian-born doctor and American mother, Owolabi began his years with the Sleepy Hollow track team in Tarrytown with the intent of becoming good at an entirely different event than the triple jump. In fact the first mention of him in the newspapers in December 1975 in his sophomore year was of being part of a trio of Horsemen that Coach Tony Camilli said could be a "triple threat" in the high jump. Combine the "triple" and the "jump" part of that statement and everything works out. "We needed a triple jumper," said Camilli, and he was finally able to convince his young 15-year-old to give the confusing and often lonely TJ event a try. The hop-step-jump was such an unknown thing to local sports writers that they would sometimes assign his 40+ foot jumps to the long jump results, and some truly stupendous-looking performances. "I had no idea how to do it," said Owolabi of his early times in the triple jump, "I just knew we needed points."

The New York high school track and field situation was in limbo at that time because the schools had been told to move over to the metric system, so meets were for instance gradually abandoning the 880 yard race to go to the 800 meters and to give the distances for event results in meters. The metric system stuck for the most part for races, but the resistance in the field events eventually forced the metric to be mainly abandoned, as guys wanted to long jump 20 feet rather than 6.10 meters.

A triple jumper needs to be devoted to lots of details as he works on the hop on one foot, the step to the other foot, and then the final launch and big stretch that will carry him into the pit and lead to a roll forward to a side. The deeply reflective and studious Owolabi was mentally perfect for the triple jump, and he also grew to have that big lanky frame that allowed him to soar where no one had gone before.

Owolabi was clearing 40 feet in the TJ pretty much from the start of 1976, and that led to immediate wins. One of the few times he was beaten while at Sleepy Hollow came very early on against a legend. At West Point for the Westchester Coaches and Officials meet, Owolabi jumped 40-11.5 but lost by 8 inches to White Plains senior Art Monk, who would pick up two States hurdles titles in June and go on to an NFL Hall of Fame career as a receiver for Washington.

But Owolabi quickly picked up the basics of elite jumping, and he was soon hitting marks such as a 43-10 to win the Section 1 Class B title and a 45-9.5 that made him the sophomore indoor class record holder for New York. In the outdoors season he continued to push the limits and rattle off the wins as he reached 45-11.5 at the Arlington Relays in May. The outdoors States meet was at nearby White Plains on June 12, 1976, and Owolabi was nursing a bone spur in his ankle, changing his shoe selection, and battling high winds as he fell behind by a half-inch to the favorite John Norton of Manhasset. On his last jump he got the shoes and his steps right, as he soared to a 48-2.75 distance that made him a state champion by a quarter inch.


During his junior year, Owolabi broadened his focus as he started picking up the long jump and also doing some sprints. As always, he threw himself into the training and strategies for his other events. In January 1977, he was already hitting distances of 47-8.25 in meets at West Point in the TJ. At the Section 1 championships he won both of the horizontal events with a 48-9.5 TJ and a 21-3 long jump. A 48-9.5 jump at Eastern States got him to within 1.5 inches of the indoor state record. That record-shattering mark came in March at States at Hobart College in Geneva when he blasted more than a foot and a half further than his PR and all the way to 50-5.75. He also added a 2nd in the long jump as he started to become a force in his second event.

Outdoor season got off to a slow start as Owolabi battled ailments. Everything seemed to come together at Penn Relays when he grabbed a lot of national attention with a 51-1 leap that smashed the meet record by more than a foot and a half. Loving the facilities there, he said, "The runway was the most important thing today." He also made a big declaration of his future goals when he stated,  "For Loucks I'll be trying to do 52-8 and break the national record. White Plains probably has a better runway."

At Loucks, Owolabi did get the meet record distance but not any record because of high winds as he could at least claim a new PR at 51-11. That set him up for more steady efforts that secured him another States triple jump title in June at 49-1.25 but left him still short of the national record and the state outdoor record. A highlight at the end of the season came on the Sleepy Hollow sports award night when ex Horseman pole vaulter and 1976 Olympic decathlon champ Bruce Jenner returned to give some inspirational messages to his old team.

Owolabi's senior year was humming from the start as he started out in the high 49s in the TJ and mid 22s in the LJ and anchored a speedy Sleepy Hollow relay team. In early February though after winning the horizontal jumps at the Westchester Coaches and Official meet, he twisted his ankle in a relay and had to sit out for three weeks. With little time to get ready for States, he used a Section 1 Class B meet to start returning to form at lesser distances, then hit 49-0 in the TJ and a 23-1.5 LJ at Eastern States in early March to get himself set. At States he hit a 50-6.25 on his first TJ attempt to break his own indoor state record by an inch. He then waited until his last LJ attempt to go 23-1.25 and claim a double win.

With just one more high school season left, Owolabi felt the urgency to make every meet count on the pursuit of the national record. April was pretty much a wash for him due to the weather and nagging physical issues, but Penn Relays again provided a great opportunity to shine. After tying his previous year's mark on his first jump in finals, he went nine inches further to 51-10 on the next attempt, and then ended it all with a 52-2.75 leap that took off well behind the board but still beat his 1977 meet record by more than a foot and a half. Despite missing the national record by 4 inches, he said "I'm glad the pressure's over. I wasn't so good because I hadn't jumped in so long (two months)." The pressure certainly was not over, but the jumping was getting very good.

The Loucks Games provided another big opportunity, but as Owolabi said, "Every time you go to White Plains it's going to be a wind-aided jump." That was true for his long jump that sailed out to 24-10, still the best-ever wind-aided LJ in NY history. And though the long jump didn't count for records, his early 50-6 TJ attempt was legal and allowed him to break the meet record by 1 1/2 feet. But he wasn't done for the day, as he then went more than another 1 1/2 feet further to 52-4.5, less than two inches in back of the national record.

As the end of May in 1978 rolled around, Owolabi was running out of opportunities at the national record and had a tough decision to make. Two bodies, the National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) and the American Athletic Union (AAU) governed the sanctioning of high school sporting events, and their relations were sometimes akin to those between the US and the USSR in the 1970s. The NFHS held sway over the regular school-year season events, and the AAU operated a group of late-season and early summer events for elite performers. The NFHS did not recognize results from AAU events, and that posed a problem for Owolabi's record hunt. If he set the record but it was not at his late May Sectional championships or at States, the NFHS would refuse to consider it. Yet the best chance for a great mark would come at the late season AAU invitationals.

Owolabi did end up going to his Sectional meet at White Plains, but it was held on a day of heavy rains that offered no chance for good marks and plenty of chance for an injury. Owolabi chose not to jump and skip States, instead setting his sights first on the Golden West meet in Sacramento CA on the same weekend as States. Flying out to the West Coast with his coach, he flew to a new PR on June 10th to take the win a 52-5.75, still an agonizing half inch off the national mark. But there was no time to brood about it as he was off to Elmhurst IL near Chicago for the next big meet, the National Preps Invitational. This time Owolabi soared way past the old marks at 53-3.5, and he thought at least he had an AAU recognized record sewed up as newspapers such as the NY Times trumpeted the news of a new national mark.

But again Owolabi was foiled. Despite assurances that a functioning wind gauge was in place during the competition, there was a screw-up by meet officials and no wind readings were taken. The AAU rejected the meet officials' statements that whatever wind there was blew across the runway and could not have been a factor in a mark that crushed the old national record by more than half a foot.

At this point few would have blamed Owolabi for turning his back on the infuriatingly managed scholastic track world and walking off to begin his years with the Kansas Jayhawk program, with which he had won a four-year scholarship. But as he would later say, "If there's one thing to learn from history, never give up."

Owolabi had one more path to a national record that could gain broad recognition, the US Juniors championship, another AAU event for 19-and-under athletes. So from Chicago it was on to Bloomington IN and another triple jump win. But at 52-4, it was his 3rd best distance and a ways short of his main goal. However, his top place earned him a trip to the Russian meet for one last chance on July 4th. And ironically, after the frustrations of dealing with officialdom on American soil, it was in Donetsk that he found the home grounds for setting a still better mark at 53-4.25. As would be expected, the win and record were hugely celebrated back in the US along with his fellow New Yorker John Gregorek's win in the 3K steeplechase. A week later in Germany, Owlolabi won again with a 51-8 jump while Gregorek was setting an all-time NY standard in the 2K steeplechase. In the following months Owolabi's mark seems to have been recognized as a national record by most sports bodies if the New York newspapers are any indication.

Owolabi's career at Kansas was marked by peaks and valleys. After reluctantly accepting the need to do weight training to compete at the college level and battling a series of injuries, he slowly became a major force on the team. He jumped 52-5.75 in his freshman season to take 2nd at the Big 8 (later Big 12) outdoor Conference meet, and he ended the season by again winning the US Juniors championship with a meet record 53-4.25 mark. In the US-USSR meet at Bakersfield CA, he bettered his 1978 mark by 2 inches at 53-6.25, but lost to the top Soviet jumper by 1/4 inch.

In his sophomore year at Kansas after taking the Big 8 indoor win at 54-6, Owolabi captured the NCAA D1 indoor crown when he jumped a new PR of 54-3.5. Outdoors at the NCAAs he went even further to 54-11.75 and 2nd at 1.25 inches behind the champ. He took the Big 8 indoor championship again in 1981 at 54-6. He tore up a hamstring in a relay race however, and his future years would be a series of comeback attempts. He had an all-time best TJ of 55-7 in a 1982 US-USSR Seniors meet, but attempts to qualify for the Olympics in 1980 and 1984 fell short as he battled not only the injuries but the tough job of trying to balance a career in business with his training. Damage to nerves in the legs finally forced him to end his triple-jumping career. Settling in Houston, TX and working in food industry management, he has continued to meet with young athletes to guide them in that most mysterious but useful talents: good triple jumping skills.

There was a state record holder before Owolabi, of course, and it was James Nathaniel of John Bowne HS in Queens, who jumped 51-3.5 in 1973. Owolabi bested that mark with his second-best jump at 51-10 during the 1978 Penn Relays that preceded that meet's final 52-2.75. Before Nathaniel the record was held for four years by Peekskill's Zach Gillon at 50-10 (Gillon still holds the States meet record of a non-wind-aided TJ at 50-5.5), and before him it was owned by some guy named Bob Beamon of Jamaica, Queens who was the first NYer to break the 50 foot barrier at 50-3.5.

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Sanya Owolabi talks to NSAF's Project Triple Jump in 2014