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A Majestic leap to London
BY IAIN MACINTYRE, VANCOUVER SUN JUNE 2, 2012
Isaac Newton wasn't a high jumper, but he knew what they were up against.
Until something bigger comes along, we are all bound to Earth by gravity, pulled toward its centre because it is so much bigger than we are. From our wobbliest steps after birth and every moment until death, gravity is there to flatten us and show who is boss.
High jumpers struggle forever against its brawn to fly, if only for a second, as far off the ground as any human unaided by springs or levers or the help of others.
Always gravity wins; it's a matter only of how lopsided the jumper's loss.
The sky is not the limit, but the ground.
Beyond physics, there is the struggle for fitness and form, for funding and facilities, and against a slick track, an unfavourable wind and the merciless assault of self-doubt on the jumper who looks above his head to a bar set impossibly high and wonders how the heck anything without wings will get over that.
Mike Mason understands all of this.
"It's kind of crazy when you look up at the bar and it's set at 2.31," Mason says, referring to metres, not feet.
"Kids will come by when I'm practising, look up and say: 'How do you jump that?' I stand under it and reach up and the bar is just at my finger tips. Sometimes I look up and say, 'Geez, that is pretty high.' "
How do you jump that?
Mostly, you try.
Mason, a 25-year-old from Nanoose Bay who has the physique of a 3-iron and the quiet amiability of a boy next door, has been jumping about as long as he can remember.
In 2004, at age 17, he won Canada's only gold medal at the world junior track and field championships in Italy with a high jump of 2.21 metres.
Seven years later, tortured by ankle pain, he couldn't even win the British Columbia title, clearing only 2.05 metres.
Mason thought last summer he might be done with his sport.
Then one month ago, at a meet on Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, Mason cleared 2.31 metres - a smidgen under seven feet, seven inches - to qualify provisionally for the London Olympics.
How do you jump that?
"I guess it's a little bit surprising," Mason says. "But I don't regret the things that happened. Lots of athletes have to work through different things in all sports."
Mason's problems began at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where lingering pain in his left ankle got suddenly worse. He required physio between jumps and managed to clear 2.25 metres, but was eliminated before the final round on a tiebreaker. Russian Andrey Silnov took the gold medal with a leap of 2.36 metres.
Throughout 2009 and 2010, Mason's jump ankle - he takes off on his left foot - was chronically sore. X-rays failed to show damage, but a CT scan just before the 2010 Commonwealth Games in India revealed a bone chip lodged in the ankle joint.
He jumped 2.20 in Delhi, then had what was thought to be fairly minor surgery that December.
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"About two weeks later, I started training again," he says. "It was supposed to be a pretty simple surgery, according to the doctors. But afterwards, it was more painful than it was before the surgery. I had a lot of scar tissue in there. I was taking painkillers almost every practice. My first meet [in 2011] was probably the most painful competition I'd ever jumped in. I jumped 2.10, but I was pretty devastated with my ankle. I had trained twice a day for five months. I told my parents that if I'd jumped any lower, I may have considered just retiring."
He cleared 2.19 at the Canadian championships in Calgary last June, but competed only five times and shut down his season after reaching just 2.05 at the provincial meet in July.
Mason figured, if he was going to continue with his sport, he needed a drastic change. He left UBC coach Paul Blaschuk and reunited with Valley Royals' coach Ziggy Szelagowicz, the slightly quirky 69-year-old from Poland who had worked with Mason in high school before Szelagowicz left Abbotsford for a four-year stint at Trinity University in San Antonio.
"The mother gave us the son," Szelagowicz explains when asked how a Vancouver Island teenager trained in Abbotsford. "He would stay in my house for two weeks. He would train, jump. Then I'm driving him back to Tsawwassen and putting him on the ferry. He has talent for high jump, but also the mind. He wants to be a high jumper."
Mason and wife Janessa, married in November and moved to Abbotsford in the fall. After a couple of months of inactivity to rest his ankle, Mike began training with his old coach. Szelagowicz says his pupil lacked confidence and conditioning and set out to rebuild both.
He also shortened Mason's run-up and reduced his jumping days to focus on conditioning.
The training wasn't entirely conventional. The pair went for a training camp in Whistler, where mostly Mike ran and hiked in the snow, except when he piggybacked Ziggy uphill through deep powder.
"That was probably the craziest thing," Mason says. "My feet pretty much disappeared in the snow."
Piggybacking a Jedi master worked for Luke Skywalker and Yoda on Dagobah. It helped Mason in Whistler, too. Alas, no one saw the 6-2, 150-pound athlete toting his coach.
"It was a big forest," Ziggy smiles. "He knows maybe I'm little bit crazy, but he didn't say anything. We spent miles and miles in big snow.
"I do lots of strength, lots of plyometrics, lots of speed. I could see his progress. I knew he will be jumping well this year."
Without a suitable indoor training facility, Mason and Szelagowicz hauled the highjump pit outside at Abbotsford's Rotary Stadium throughout the winter.
"One day, snow just started down in huge, huge flakes," Mike recalls. "And the pit basically just turned white. The whole thing was covered. The problem is the snow gets caught up in your spikes and you have this layer of ice."
Mason jumped 2.17 at the start of the indoor season and, although his clearances didn't get much higher, he was painfree for the first time in years. Szelagowicz promised him he would soar.
Mason made his outdoor debut in Bellingham, Wash., in March. Szelagowicz wanted to get in a meet before the official Olympic qualifying window opened on April 1.
"I jumped 2.20 in horrible conditions," Mike says. "It was three or four degrees and just pouring rain. And I felt great. I jumped 2.20 and just clipped off [the bar] at 2.24. That was the most excited I'd been in a long, long time."
Two weeks later, in a meet at UBC, Mason jumped the Olympic B-standard of 2.28 metres - equalling the highest outdoor jump of his life. He repeated it later in April at the Mount Sac Relays in California. Then he jumped the A-standard on May 1 in Guadeloupe. Dispirited by
pain and performance less than a year ago, Mason will be going to London in July as long as he finishes in the top three at the Canadian championships June 27-30 in Calgary. As a tune-up, Mason will jump at the Harry Jerome International Track Classic next Sunday at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby.
The only other Canadian with an A-standard is Derek Drouin, a 22-year-old from Sarnia, Ont., who cleared 2.31 at a college meet in Wisconsin three weeks ago. Only three men in the world have jumped higher than the two Canadians so far this season.
Mike's friends and family found out through social media that he had jumped 2.31 in Guadeloupe. His mom phoned Janessa to tell her.
"We had one of those moments when you're just screaming on the phone," says Janessa, who ran track at UBC and works as a travel agent. "It was pretty neat. My mom and I bought our tickets to London last September. We were going there to see the high jump. It's amazing that Mike jumped 2.31. It's fantastic and incredible, but it's nothing that surprised me."
Mason is getting to London the hard way.
He isn't receiving a dime of government support.
For many years, elite Canadian competitors have been funded by the Athlete Assistance Program - essentially an allowance from the federal government to help world-class athletes train full time.
The limited number of funding "cards" come with performance standards. For high jumpers, that threshold is 2.25 metres. Funding for 2012 is based on 2011 performances, and Mason bombed last year. Because he continued to compete on his bad ankle, he probably undermined his chances of receiving an injury exemption. Mason's application for one was denied. He lost $1,500 a month in support.
"The problem is there are a few injured athletes, but only so many cards," he said. "Coaches wanted me to appeal, but I just didn't want that extra pressure. It's a messy process. You basically have to argue why you should get a card ahead of someone else.
"I was in Mexico on my honeymoon when I checked the funding list and that's when I found out I lost funding. It didn't really matter at the time because I felt so good in training and I had such good support [from family] around me."
His financial support comes from Janessa and his parents, Carol and Rob. Mason's mom is the chief administrative officer of the Nanaimo Regional District and his dad is a mechanical engineer.
Janessa, who rides transit to work in Vancouver, said she and Mike have always lived frugally.
Mason will get his card back in 2013, but if he wins a medal in London, he could make a lot more money in sponsorship and appearance fees. In the meantime, Mike isn't paying Ziggy.
"Before we started [training last fall], we went to lunch," Szelagowicz says. "I said to write down his goals for this year. He wrote: 'I want to improve flexibility. I want to feel light and explosive. I want to make the Olympic team. I want to jump 2.31.' I just sat down with Mike again and said: 'You have to reset your goals. You've done everything already, and it's only May.' We can go higher."
"Right when I started in October, it felt right," Mason says. "I guess I just feel lucky that I ended up in this place with Ziggy. His knowledge is just so incredible - and his ability to make me peak when I need to peak. He focuses on all sides, not just the physical."
Mason said with the Canadian championships looming, he's trying not to think about the Olympics. Just like he was trying not to think about them last September when Janessa and their parents were buying plane tickets to London even as Mike's career was in doubt.
"I told them not to tell me about that stuff, but I kind of knew they were doing it," he says. "They always had faith in me. I guess I'm kind of getting that faith back in myself.
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