April 10, 2014
By Christopher Walsh
He had toyed with the idea of being on the track and field team while attending middle school, but opted to stay solely with his first athletic love, basketball.
Yet that all changed one day as a freshman at Oxford High School in Mississippi, when Justin Fondren and some friends were running laps on the track and the bar was still set up on the unattended nearby high jump, practically inviting them all to give it a shot.
Boys will be boys.
"I bet you can't jump over this," one of them finally said, followed by the others, and the challenge was immediately accepted.
"We were all wearing tennis shoes, no spikes or anything," Fondren fondly remembered. "Guys were jumping, like, 5-10 and I was thinking, 'That's nothing'."
He subsequently not only proved it, but kept going until clearing 6 feet, 6 inches, which was also when the track coach may have had the best timing of his career by arriving just in time. Instead of yelling anything like, "What are you guys doing?" he ran up and eagerly said, "Do that again!"
From that point on, Fondren's athletic future was primarily in track and field, instead of basketball, even though he went on to be an all-state selection as a shooting guard.
"I was, like, a joke at first but it came to be something great because I jumped 7-feet my freshman year in high school," he said. "That was my opportunity to go to college, right there.
"Who ever thought it would be at Alabama?"
Considering the way his high school career went, and those who pushed him, Fondren would be a big addition. As a freshman he had a friendly rivalry develop up with R.J. Robertson, the first jumper in state high school history to clear 7-3. Never before had the Mississippi championships seen two competitors with 7-foot jumps.
"... and he edged me by an inch," Fondren said. "I didn't know it was a freshman record until a couple of weeks later."
At the national meet, he went up against Eric Kynanrd, who went on to compete for Kansas State and won the silver medal at the 2012 Olympics in London.
His role model, though, became Hollis Conway, the six-time All-American and three-time NCAA champion at Louisiana-Lafayette who went on to win two Olympic medals. In addition to setting the NCAA indoor record of 7-9 1/2 in 1989, Conway was the top-ranked high jumper in the United States for seven years and the world for two.
When a coach told Conway about Fondren, the now motivational speaker signed an autograph that said he never cleared 7 feet in high school.
"That's my motivation," Fondren said.
Fondren was the runner-up at the 2010 national high school meet and placed third at the 2011 World Youth Championships in Lile, France. In addition to being named the 2012 Gatorade Athlete of the Year for Mississippi, he helped lead Oxford to state titles in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and was also on the drum line, selected Prom King, and named "Mr. OHS" by the student body.
What brought him to Tuscaloosa, though, was the chance to lean from assistant coach Dick Booth, who has helped guide 49 NCAA individual champions and 165 All-America performances. At the time Booth was on the staff at Florida, which captured the 2011 NCAA indoor championship.
"I was, 'Oh my gosh, I have to do something good because I have to go to Florida,'" Fondren said about his recruitment, but when Booth stopped calling, Fondren started looking at his next option: Kansas State. However, Booth hadn't cooled on him. Rather, Booth was in the process of leaving Gainesville for the Capstone.
When they reconnected, the choice became pretty easy.
"It came down to having the support of my family around me," he said, as most of the Fondrens live in the Oxford area and can make the three-hour drive a lot easier than the trip to Manhattan, Kansas.
Among some of the highlights they were able to celebrate last year were a 13th-place finish in the NCAA Championships, a third-place showing at the Pan American Junior Championships in Medellin Columbia, and winning the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships with a jump of 7-1 3/4.
But that was just the beginning under the demanding Booth, who says, "Here we start training to train in August," and has completely changed everything from Fondren's approach to his training.
"I didn't lift weights in high school," he explained. "Getting stronger helps, and being more explosive off the ground."
As for the technique changes, which are even more pronounced, he said: "If you saw me last year or in high school I only took eight steps. Now he's got me totally different, doing ten steps. Last year I was starting at 61 feet and now I'm back at 68 feet.
"It's a big difference and you find yourself."
Fondren believes that finally happened a couple of weeks ago, sort of like a basketball player getting into a shooting groove or a musician finding a rhythm that simply flows. With Booth telling him "This is your mark" for his backed-up start he's more confident and expects to be more consistent.
That, in turn, should lead to his becoming the guy who regularly clears 7-3, 7-4, like some of those other standouts.
He recently got off to a good start on March 22 when his 7-1 1/2 cracked the Crimson Tide's all-time top-10 list during the outdoor season, while being cheered on by some those hometown friends and family members attending the John Mitchell Alabama Relays at Alabama's Sam Bailey Track Complex. He followed up with a career-best clearance of 7-3 at the Crimson Tide Invite on April 5 in Tuscaloosa.
The program's outdoor record is 7-7 3/4 by Jeff Woodard in 1980, prior to last Saturday no Alabama high jumper had cleared 7-3 since Mike Williams did it in 1993.
"I think I have a lot to improve on, especially weight-wise," Fondren said. "I'm still not as strong as I can be, but I'm working on it and I have two more years to do it. I feel like I'm in perfect position."