NOT EVEN AIR DAMON’S MOM KNEW ABOUT OLYMPIC DREAMS

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

Bernardine Damon, the mother of a future Olympian, overheard the youngest of her four children talk about the Olympic Games as a goal during her prep days. It was news to her.

“My jaw just about dropped,” she said. “I had no idea she had those thoughts.”

That youngest, a daughter, Karol Damon kept jumping. She’d cleared 5-feet, 1-inch as a schoolgirl in Europe.

High jump, Damon later claimed, “was a big fluke. The other girls had all their marks and I didn’t know what I was doing.” Still, she kept going. It’s the essence of the sport.

In high school, she cleared 5-4, leaping as high as 5-10 as a Redlands High School athlete. She was known as “Air Damon.”

Damon_Karol
Three decades after being known as “Air Damon” at Redlands High School, onetime Olympian Karol Damon-Rovelto is coaching track at Kansas State (photo by Kansas State athletics).

Girls’ prep track had only been established for a little over a decade. In the mid-1960s, Riverside Poly’s Rosie Bonds – aunt to eventual HR champion Barry Bonds – had to leave California during her prep days in order to find competitive girls’ meets.

Bonds wound up at the 1964 Olympics. It would take about a decade for California to upgrade its athletics program to include competitive girls’ programs.

At Redlands, Jim Scribner left the boys’ team as its coach to take the girls’ squad.

Scribner had bunked heads with the likes of San Gorgonio High’s Howard sisters in 1979. One of those, Sherri Howard, won a gold medal (4 x 400, 1984 L.A. Games).

He had to dope out meets against a high-powered Eisenhower High team from nearby Rialto.

Redlands High track & field was one of the campus’ top athletic programs. Often, the Lady Terriers had to match their depth with other teams’ top performers – winning meets, perhaps, by piling up points by flooding events with a prolific group of performers.

Few Redlands tracksters were legitimate multiple-event winners.

Triple jump star Camille Robertson, a CIF champion in 1983, might have been a multiple event star.

Long jump champion Carolyn Zeller (1977) might have been the Lady Terriers’ first female track star.

DAMON SHOWED UP AS AN AIR FORCE ‘BRAT’

Like a lot of athletes at Redlands High, Damon was there because her father was in the Air Force. Norton Air Force Base was nearby in San Bernardino.

Dean Olson had taken over as coach from Scribner. He had inherited a track & field jewel. Slim. Perky. Attractive. Lithe. Athletic. Blond. She climbed to a school record 5-feet-10 in actual meets. There were, at times, six-foot jumps … in practice.

“She wouldn’t tune you out,” said Olson. “She was just tuned into her event.”

As a prep star, she was a great interview. Alert. Humble. Knew how to size up her skills. Keen insight into her sport. Didn’t soak up many moments. There was much more to conquer. Never took away from teammates’ achievements, either.

By rule, prep coaches can only schedule an athlete into four events. That’s four events out of 14 (15, when there was pole vault). Damon was good for 20 points in most meets.

In high school duals, event winners are awarded five points.

Four events, max. Five points awarded. That’s 20 points. In a dual meet where 65 points is the magic number, that’s almost one-third of a team’s point total.

Damon was like a 30-points-a-game scorer in basketball. Or averaging 38 kills in a volleyball match. Or hitting .480 in softball.

Damon, who would someday soar into the Olympic games as a high jumper, was always good for 5 ½ feet, or better, at a Redlands meet. She could also hurdle. Sprint. There was the 400. She could run relays. And long jump.

By the conclusion of Damon’s prep career at Redlands, she had cleared 5-feet, 8-inches at the CIF-Southern Section championships held at Cerritos College in Norwalk.

Surrounded by Southern California’s most prestigious athletes, Damon soared to the 4A (big schools) championship. A week later, she won the CIF-Masters clearing 5-6.

It was AFTER Redlands that she started her ascent to the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

POST-REDLANDS TO THE OLYMPICS

It was off to the University of Colorado, where she was a four-time NCAA All-American. She was Big Eight champion in 1990. That year, one season after suffering a stress fracture, Damon had finally cleared six feet.

By 1991, she won the Big Eight title again, clearing 5-11 ½. Heading into the season, she was third at the NCAA Indoors, her best ever at 6-2, third place. After winning the Big Eight, she took third at the NCAA Outdoors (6-feet, ¾-inch).

By 1992, every jump was at around six feet – second at Big Eight Indoor (6- ¾), tied for 11th at NCAA Indoor (5-11 ¼), third in Big Eight Outdoor (6- ¾), fourth at NCAA Outdoor (5-11 ½). A quick note: She was ranked ninth in Track & Field magazine.

For good measure, she tried to claim a spot on the Barcelona Olympic squad, clearing a career-best 6-1 ¼, but tying for 7th at the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials.

By this point, plenty of athletes would call it a career.

Rovelto_Karol
A member of the USA Olympic team in 2000, Redlands product Karol Damon made quality attempts to land in the Games at Barcelona and Atlanta before showing up at Sydney (photo by U.S. Track).

By 1996, Damon cleared a personal best 6-3 ½ to finish fourth, one spot out of qualifying for the Atlanta Olympic Games. Appropriately, she was ranked fourth by T & F.

Damon had married high jumper Randy Jenkins, so she was then known as Karol Jenkins in those days.

She participated in most of the big meets – USA Indoors (6- ¼, 5th), Pan Am Games (6-2, 4th), USA Outdoors (6-feet, 9th), clearing a personal best 6-3 ½ in 1995. It was one year before the Olympics. But that 6-3 ½ was one place shy of qualifying.

Veteran star Amy Acuff also cleared 6-3 ½, claiming that third and final spot on fewer misses.

The world record at the time was 6-10 ¼ (Bulgaria’s Stefka Kostadinova). Louise Ritter claimed the American mark at 6-8, twice.

Damon-Jenkins. Quit? No!

ONE LAST ATTEMPT TO QUALIFY

In 1997 through the 2000 Sydney Games Olympic year, Damon was among the USA’s top five high jumpers. Tisha Waller. Connie Teabury, Acuff.

It was training for the big meets – the USA Outdoors and Indoors, Goodwill Games, World University Games, all in preparation for the world stage.

Held at Hornet Stadium at Sacramento State University’s stadium, Karol Damon (now Karol Rovelto – she’d married her coach from Kansas State) – was soaring against the likes of Acuff, Waller and Erin Aldrich.

In a remarkable 6-foot, 3-3/4-inch effort, her lifetime best, the onetime Redlands High star had won the Trials.

It was a Trials dominated by Marion Jones.

Damon-Rovelto was ranked No. 1 by T&F.

It was on to Sydney for the Olympics.

At 1.89 meters, which is 6-feet, 2 ¼-inches, Damon’s 24th place finish wasn’t all that close to eventual gold medalist – Yelena Yelesina, of Russia (2.01 meters, which is better than 6-8). Damon, like Acuff, failed to reach the finals.

Only a dozen years earlier, Damon was just launching her career from Redlands.

Sixteen years after her Olympic experience, Damon-Rovelto was back at it.

A longtime coach at Kansas State, Rovelto coached high jumper Alyx Treasure and heptathlete Akela Jones at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.

You wonder if Bernardine knew about those dreams?