If nothing else Paula John, the Weber State high jumper, mother, wife and student all rolled into one, demonstrated an uncanny sense of timing in delivering one of the biggest surprises of last weekend's NCAA indoor track championships in Indianapolis.
With a single bound she ended a winless streak against two long-time rivals, capped a storybook comeback that began two years earlier, and ended her collegiate career with a national championship.John, a senior from Burley, Idaho, cleared 6 feet to win the national championship - a first for a Weber State woman - while her parents and husband Cameron cheered her from the stands.
"That's the first time in a big meet I wasn't second best," says John, who has never won so much as a conference championship while at Weber. "It was definitely a surprise," she says. "My goal was to get to six feet with no misses, bring home a plaque (to the top six finishers) and get 6-2."
John accomplished two of those goals. She cleared 5-8, 5-10 and 6 feet on her first attempts. To everyone's surprise, only two other competitors managed to clear 6 feet - and, what's more, only John had done so on her first attempt. When Stanford's Lisa Berhagen, Idaho State's Amber Welty and John all failed to clear 6-2, John was the winner on fewest misses.
The meet marked the first time John has beaten Welty, the defending NCAA champ and a frequent rival in Intermountain competitions, and Bernhagen, who set the national high school record while competing for Wood River (Idaho) High and had never lost to John during their 11-year rivalry.
"I feel bad for the sport that it was won at such a low height," Bernhagen told John after the competition. So much for tact. "That got to me," said John, "but later I just figured she felt bad."
Nothing could spoil the moment for John, who took a hard road to get to the national title. Two years ago, in January of 1987 Paula had a baby. "I thought that was it for me," she said. "I had no money, no scholarship and I had dropped out of school."
But two weeks after the arrival of the baby, Head Coach Jim Blaisdell called John and asked her if she would like to try a comeback. She did, but to her dismay she discovered she was very much out of shape. Weight wasn't the problem - indeed, at 120 pounds the 5-foot-8 John weighed 15 pounds less than she did before the pregnancy - but strength was. In workouts she cleared heights of only 4-4 and 4-6 - and the best she could manage in track workouts was 30-meter sprints. Jump Coach Jim Archuletta brought her along slowly and was undetered even after she cleared a mere 4-10 in her first meet - one foot under her pre-baby personal record. By the end of May John cleared 5-71/2 and placed fourth in the conference meet.
"Then I knew I could do it," recalls John.
In 1988, John continued to improve, clearing 6 feet once and taking seventh in the indoor national meet (she no-heighted in the NCAA outdoor meet). This winter John cleared 6 feet twice and for the second time in two years finished second to Welty in the Big Sky Conference meet.
"Before I had the baby I didn't work hard," says John, explaining her improvement. "Everthing came easy. Then when the baby came everything was work. I've worked a lot harder since the baby."
John's NCAA eligibility ended with the NCAA indoor meet, but she has no regrets. If anything, she seems ready for a break from the demands of dividing time among her duties as wife, mother, athlete and student, while Cameron worked a fulltime job and attended school.
"For now, I'm going to nurse my injuries, be a mommy and let Cameron see what it's like to have a wife," she says.