It was a sharp blow, one likely to damage the fragile psyche of a high school girl. When it came, Joetta Clark, a 17-year-old from South Orange, N.J., was doing an easy jog around Madison Square Garden's banked wooden track, warming down from her 800-meter victory over Jan Merrill and Madeline Manning, her onetime idols, in January's Olympic Invitational meet. Sprinter Mike Roberson stepped onto the track and stopped her. "Jo, did you hear?" he said. "You've been disqualified."
"Stop joking," said Clark, but then two other runners came over and confirmed Roberson's report. Clark had been convicted of straying in front of Merrill in the homestretch—"impeding her progress," the judges said. "I was upset," says Clark. "I was the defending champion, and we were on national TV. But I didn't really show it or anything. That never does any good."
Not showing it when it hurts is typical of Clark. "Joetta's a remarkable young lady," says Manning, a three-time Olympian, who won a gold medal in the 800 at Mexico City and in 1972 set a world record of 2:02 in the 880. "She's far too mature for a high school girl, not silly and giggly like most, and she's a genuinely nice person. She can handle whatever's thrown at her."
It's been that way for a while. At age 11, after four years of classes at a dance studio in nearby Newark, Clark and her friend Natalie Butler auditioned for, and were accepted by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center in Manhattan. "We don't usually accept them that young," says Robert Christopher, their ballet instructor. "Those two were very serious—hard workers, exceptionaly well-mannered and mature. They were graceful enough not to stick out like little girls among adults."
Every Saturday morning for four years the girls commuted to 45th Street and Broadway in Manhattan to take six hours of classes in ballet, modern and modern-jazz dance from Christopher and Ailey himself. "At the time, the most exciting thing was getting to ride the subways by ourselves," Clark says. "That was a thrill, though to this day I can't tell you how to get to the Dance Center when you get above ground." In her classes she made rapid progress. "I performed at Symphony Hall in Newark," she says, "and I had gotten on toe in ballet. But then Natalie and I got too far advanced and had to start coming to the Center on weekdays. That's when the dancing began to interfere with my track. That's when I stopped."
It takes more than self-confidence and inner direction to toss away a promising dance career, not to mention the opportunity to work with an Alvin Ailey. Clark, however, has never been indecisive. As a freshman at Columbia High in Maple-wood, N.J., she was also an aspiring pianist, in her seventh year of lessons ("Bach, Chopin, all that"), but she decided to play only for her own enjoyment. She is on the honor roll at Columbia, and she scored in the 92nd percentile on her SATs. In track she is off the charts.
"Joetta was an outstanding prospect by the time she arrived here," says Len Klepack, her coach at Columbia. "She had done a 5:09 mile and 2:21 half in eighth grade, and she could sprint." Clark's father, Joe, an elementary school principal, had started her running when she was nine. In her very first race, a Newark Parks Commission 60-yard dash, she won easily. "My sprint career didn't last too long, though," she says. "I could do a 12.1 hundred when I was 12, but that wasn't good enough to ensure that I'd win all the time. By moving up to the half and the mile, I could win all the time. That's what I wanted."
So, as a freshman, with track offering more exhilaration, Clark left ballet behind. "Natalie's in the advanced dance company now, and I'd probably be with her if I hadn't stopped," Clark says matter-of-factly. "It was my own choice. What Natalie does is more of a group thing, while I like the independence of running. Ballet is like a cage—you're held tightly within it. I want to seek adventure."
The talk of adventure implies a daring that is not readily apparent in Joetta Clark. Her face is long and serious, her eyes tranquil. She speaks with a confidence that falls far short of bravado and a restraint that occasionally frustrates, as when she starts an anecdote—a funny thing that happened on the way to somewhere—then comes up too shy, hesitant to pull the trigger. It's as though she doesn't want to cause a stir.
Her physical maturity speaks for itself. There is a straightness of spine and elegance of stride that reflects her dance training. At 5'8" and 120 pounds, she might otherwise be all elbows and knees, just another rawboned teen-ager.
In her first two years at Columbia, a middle-class public school known for academic rather than athletic excellence, Clark won the state 880 title, ran on a sprint medley relay team that set a national girls' prep record (4:08.5), was on three other relay teams that established state records and helped Columbia win two unofficial state championships. She even tried high jumping and cleared 5'6". She has suffered only three defeats in her high school career—all at distances other than the 800 or 880, one of them following her only serious injury, a spike wound in her left thigh three years ago that required 11 stitches.
Clark entered big-time athletics two years ago, finishing third in the 880 in the 1978 Philadelphia Track Classic. Several weeks later, she was third again in the Millrose Games 880. "I'd been to the Garden every year since I was little to watch the Millrose, and I knew all the runners, men as well as women," she says. "When I actually got to run with those people, I nearly forgot to warm up." Clark wasn't too awed to miss the lessons in the rough and tumble of life on the boards that were taught in those early meets. "I did a lot of stupid things," she says. "I let myself get boxed in and cut off. I ended up getting pushed around. I learned."
By last year Clark was coming of age outdoors as well. Her time in the 800, which had dropped from 2:11 as a freshman to 2:05.6 as a sophomore, fell to 2:03.6, and she won the 800 at the USOC Sports Festival in Colorado Springs. She had also placed third in the 880 in the AAU Indoor Championships, and her fifth in the AAU outdoor meet qualified her for the 36-member U.S. national team that competed in France in June. At that meet, she ran in the fastest leg (2:04.1) on the 4 x 800 relay team that set an American record (8:19.9). Outdoors this season Clark has already set a state record of 55.25 in the 440 and has helped set a national and another state record in the past two weeks. On April 5 her 2:13 880 leg in a sprint medley race was crucial to Columbia's national record of 4:05 for the event; last Thursday she ran a 2:09.5 half-mile leg as Columbia set a state record (9:22.0) in the two-mile relay.
Last fall, Clark decided to try road running and placed 15th among 250 entrants in a 6.6-mile race in New Jersey, winning both the women's and the girls' under-18 divisions in 39:23. Encouraged by that triumphant effort, she has continued to do distance work—40 to 50 miles a week—in order to build her endurance. "I have been working with two goals in mind," she says. "One is to go under two minutes in the 800 and break the world junior record of 1:59.7. If I do that, I'll also break [Mary] Decker's high school record [2:02.3]. The other goal, of course, was the Olympics."
Ironically, her parents, Joe and Jetta, whose names are the source of Joetta's, who encouraged her to try ballet, piano and track and taught her morals and manners and values—the "strong family" behind her early maturity—are now divorced. Joetta lets this information slip out and then tries to pull it back. Taught always to assume the proper stance, here she finds none. She and her 15-year-old brother, J.J., also a talented runner, spend time with each parent but officially live with their father in South Orange; otherwise, because Jetta Clark lives in Newark, they would have to leave Columbia High. And high school kids are high school kids when it comes to leaving their friends.
But that will come soon. Colleges have already come knocking, more than 100 so far. Recruiting letters litter the floor of Clark's bedroom, and she has taken to unplugging her extension phone so she can do homework and sleep without being disturbed by calls from coaches. "The ones on the West Coast are the worst," she says. "They call at nine their time and forget that it's midnight here. I'm usually in bed at 9:30." Whatever school she decides on will have to have a strong English program; her aim is to be a sports-writer. "I also want a coach who can handle an athlete of my caliber," she says. "A lot of them, even ones who happened to have Olympic athletes, don't really know what they're doing."
Both Joetta and her coach had better be on their toes: Soviet and Eastern European women dominate the 800; in 1979, nine of them were under Manning's American record, set in 1976, of 1:57.9. In addition, while Clark is mature among her peers, she is but a babe in this group. The average age of last year's 10 best 800-meter women runners was nearly 28.
Still, no one expects it to take a decade for Joetta Clark to be near the top of the world class.