When Joetta Clark entered Columbia High School here four years ago, she was faced with a monumental decision: to pursue a running career or one equally as promising in either dance or piano. The loss to the fine arts world has been a gain for the sports world.
I don't feel like I gave anything up," said Joetta, who recently finished her high school career by becoming the first athlete to win the New Jersey Meet of Champions four straight years. "Running hs been a great experience for me. I've set records, made the national team, and traveled all over the world. If you're good to it [running], it will repay you."
No one knows what would have become of Joetta had she kept up her many years of rugged training with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company in Manhattan or followed an aspiring career in classical piano, but it is obvious that she has made, and will continue to make, a name for herself as a runner.
Joetta began taking dance and piano lessons at the age of 7. At age 11 she was accepted by the Alvin Ailey Company and for four years Joetta and a friend commuted to New York every Saturday for six hours of class, including a ballet course from Ailey himself. She still plays the piano for her own enjoyment, but gave up both pursuits seriously for a passion her father introduced her to at the age of 9. Joseph Clark, then director of the Essex County Parks Commission, entered his daugther in the commission's 60-yard dash, and she ran away with her first of many trophies.
"I coached Joetta up to the age of junior high and then found it to be a duplication of effort to continue," said Joetta's father, a distance runner in college "It's too hard to follow up with your own kids. Having [Len] Klepack as her coach is one of the most outstanding things that has happened to Joetta."
Klepack, the Columbia High varsity track coach, recognized Joetta's talents immediately and nurtured them carefully with progressive training that has turned her into an international competitor.
Joetta, whose name combines those of her father and mother, Jetta, has grown from 5 ft. 4 1/2 in. and 97 pounds as a freshman to her current 5-8, 120 pounds. During that same period, her time in the 800 meters has dropped from 2:12.7 to 2 :03.7. That makes her the top-ranked high school athlete in the 800. (She's also the leader among 1,500-meter runners, with a time of 4:27, and 1,000-yard competitors, with a 2:34.5). And among all women, only a handful of top stars rank ahead of her in the 800.
"The average age of runners I compete against is 20," Joetta said. "I'm always the youngest, but because girls mature faster, a teen-ager can run with older women. When you run with women, you have to learn how to protect yourself and hold your ground. The women will knock you down, elbow you. You have to get in position and just try to stay away from the others."
She had little trouble staying away from the high school runners this year. watching her win her fourth straight state championship 800-meter run was reminiscent of Secretariat winning the 1973 Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths. She assumed the lead about 10 feet into the race and finished 40 yards and seven seconds ahead of a pack battling for second place.
The race brought Joetta's high school cav reer to a close, a career that established four indoor state records (at 440 yards, 800 meters, 880 yards, and 1,500 meters), seven state outdoor marks (440 yards, 800 meters, 880 yards, 1, 500 meters, the mile, two-mile relay, and distance medley relay), two national high school records (800 meters and sprint medley relay), and an American women's record (two-mile relay). She never lost an 800-meter or 1,500-meter race in New Jersey.
Joetta, however, did lose sight of one of her goals, the 1980 Olympics. As a freshman, she wanted to compete in Moscow in the 1,500 meters. She later amended that to the 800, and recently abandoned hopes of Moscow altogether.
"The boycott must have been a lot more upsetting for those athletes who are older," the disappointed but resilient 17-year-old said of the US-instigated Olympic boycott. "The 1980 Olympics really only entered my life at the end of my sophomore year. Some of the other athletes, like Mary Decker or Bill Rodgers , established themselves years ago and have been working for the Olympics a long time. I only established a name for myself last year."
Joetta may not be as embittered as some of the older athletes, but she definitely feels she is bein gused as a political football.
"I don't think the athletes should be used as bait. It's said. The government has never supported us, so I don't think we ought to be used," the articulate South Orange resident said. "I guess in time of crisis you have to use whatever measures you can, but the boycott's not going to hurt the Russians. And I guess now we can't back down. We have to maintain a strong government."
The boycott has not changed her training schedule.
"Joetta's still trying to peak for this month's Olympic Trials [in Eugene, Ore.]," Klepack said. "I think she understands it [the boycott], but it is complex. She can still look forward to 1984 at least.
"I will never have another opportunity to coach an athlete like Joetta," he added, "but we'll each have other goals."
Flooded with college offers, she has limited her choices to three -- the University of Virginia, Georgetown, and North Carolina State. An honor student with a B-plus average, she has wanted to pursue a career in journalism since her freshman year. Besides leaving behind many records, memories, and friends at Columbia High, she is also leaving her younger brother, J. J., a sophomore who is a promising cross-country and middle-distance runner.
"There's no competition between the two," Joe Clark says. "It's always been a cooperative effort. When J. J. was younger, Joetta helped him into running. I'm fortunate. Through all this my children have emerged as exemplary athletes, and, more important, as good people."