Lawrence Johnson ordinarily chooses his words with utmost care, as befits an aspiring lyricist. But when he's describing the sensation of pole vaulting, the words tumble out in a torrent of enthusiasm. "It's closely related to man's dream of flying," Johnson says. "You rock back, the wind is rushing by you, and suddenly you're flying."
Johnson's prowess in the pole vault, an event in which the U.S. has languished in recent years, has others gushing as well. "Gosh! He gets an old American vaulter like me excited," says Earl Bell, an Olympic bronze co-medalist in 1984. Last year Johnson broke four U.S. junior records, raising the mark to 18'8¾", and in March the Tennessee sophomore won the NCAA indoors with a collegiate record of 19'1½". What makes this so astonishing is that Johnson just turned 20 and figures to be five, maybe 10, years away from his peak as a vaulter. And he didn't take up the event full time until April, having trained most of his two years as a Vol primarily for the decathlon. "He's got the speed, strength and athleticism to be the world's best," says Bell. "He'll go a lot higher."
Johnson himself, who will compete at this week's NCAA championships in Boise, Idaho, speaks of becoming the first to clear 21 feet. The world record of 20'2" is held by Ukraine's Sergei Bubka, who has dominated pole vaulting for more than a decade. Johnson studies Bubka's technique so obsessively that his teammates call him Black-ba, as in the Black Bubka. Johnson has Bubka's vaults on tape and watches them frame by frame, even setting them to music. At a vault clinic in Reno in January, Johnson struck up a friendship with Vitaly Petrov, who coached Bubka and with whom Johnson now corresponds for training advice.
Johnson first wanted to become a hurdler like his father, also named Lawrence, who was a 440-yard hurdler for Norfolk State. But Lake Taylor High—an inner-city school in Norfolk, Va., that Johnson attended as a freshman and sophomore before transferring to Great Bridge High in nearby Chesapeake, Md.—already had four good hurdlers, so he was steered toward the vault, one of the few track and field events with no tradition of success by black people. Says Johnson, "People kept saying, 'He's a black vaulter. He won't succeed.' I knew if I worked hard enough, I could do it. I watched Rocky movies growing up." Johnson doesn't blame the dearth of black vaulters directly on racism but on poverty and poor facilities. "It's a lot cheaper to sprint than to pole vault," he says noting that a new pole can cost $300.
Though he cleared 17'6" as a high school senior, Johnson was recruited by Tennessee as much for his potential as a decathlete as for his promise as a vaulter. As a freshman he won the SEC decathlon with 7,576 points, and he still does some decathlon training. "He needs [other events] or he'll burn out in the vault," says Vol coach Doug Brown. "He's a sponge for knowledge of the vault." And for knowledge of other things.
Johnson has a 3.08 GPA in computer science and is a budding lyricist who has had songs recorded by Rosa Knight, a Knoxville-based R&B singer. "He wakes me at four a.m. to hear what he just wrote," says his roommate, long jumper Darius Pemberton. "It's mostly slow, love music. He's a romantic." As such, Johnson should know Fly Me to the Moon. He may need a pole, but Johnson plans to fly almost that high.
When the Vol sophomore isn't writing songs, he's flying high.