South L.A. track athlete, almost 88, jumps at a chance to compete

Johnnye Valien has set several age-group world records in track and field. Yes, she practices the javelin in her backyard.

Johnnye Valien was waiting her turn in the long jump event at a West L.A. College track meet last week when she realized nobody was using the nearby high jump pit. This is an athlete who cannot help herself. She sees a challenge and she’s compelled to attack it, as if she has no idea she is about to turn 88.
On  her way over to the high jump area, the South Los Angeles resident passed the pole vault pit. And that stopped her cold, her eyes lit by competitive desire.
I know what you’re thinking: Is a vault, by someone in her 80s, physically possible?
Valien, as a matter of fact, is the reigning world record-holder for women 85 to 90.
“You’d like to get in there, wouldn’t you?” I asked as Valien eyeballed a teenage pole vaulter.
“Yes I would,” Valien confessed, but she hasn’t vaulted in a year or so. She’s planning to compete at the world masters championships this October in Brazil, though, where she doesn’t intend to hold back.
“I’m going to sign up for everything in Brazil,” Valien said.
Valien, I discovered, doesn’t like talking about what she does; she likes doing it. I heard about her from a patron at Tolliver’s barber shop and began pestering her for an interview, but she wanted none of that. And Valien’s daughter, Roxanne, wasn’t surprised.
“I kid you not,” said Roxanne, “Sports Illustrated wanted to do an interview and she said, ‘Oh, no. That means I’m going to have to clean up the house…I don’t need all that.'”
I was glad to hear that, since I’d taken it a little personally the first two times I called her and she had no interest in talking to me. I kept at it, though, and one day I managed to keep Valien on the phone long enough to ask how — if she travels to her workouts by bus — she manages to carry her javelin.
“I usually practice javelin in my backyard,” said Valien, and I knew I had to meet her.
Valien, who wore a black-and-white warmup suit to last week’s all-comers meet, ran track at Tuskegee University, and seven of her teammates made the 1948 U.S. Olympic team. The fact that she wasn’t one of them may be one reason she’s still got the fire, long after retiring from her job in L.A.’s parks department and raising three kids on her own after her husband died in the 1970s.
“I didn’t know anything about masters track until 1988,” said Valien, whom you might call a late bloomer.
In 2002, she was inducted into the Masters Track Hall of Fame. In 2011, she was the organization’s athlete of the year after setting age-group world records in the pole vault and long jump, as well as American records in the shot put, high jump and 100 meters. Valien still holds age-group world records in the 80- and 300-meter hurdles and the seven-event heptathlon.
“And she’s not the oldest woman out there,” said Ken Stone of “There are people in their late 80s and several in their early 90s.”