Burros at the Olympics - then and now

Burros at the Olympics - then and nowBruce Auld, a former Sierra Sands Unified School District Superintendent, is writing the history of Burroughs High School. The articles that are being published are excerpts form his upcoming book, exclusive to The News Review. Two Burros Traveled to Eugene, Oregon to Compete in the 2020 Olympic Trials

And there is a lot more to the story

In Track and Field, there are runners, throwers and jumpers. This article features a jumper, the Kovar family of throwers and the Burros’ only Olympian. An article on Burroughs High School’s premier runner, a world class 400-meter sprinter, will follow.

Burroughs High School was well represented in late June at the Tokyo Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon. Anthony Applequist, a 2013 Burroughs graduate, qualified to compete in the triple jump, which was remarkable in light of the fact that training facilities were closed due to the pandemic and that he had retired from competition two years earlier to teach and coach. Although not making the Olympic Team, it was a lifetime experience. After graduating from Burroughs, Anthony competed in both Track and Field events at Mt. San Antonio College (Mt. SAC) and as a California State University, Fullerton “Titan.” Anthony competed in the 2019 season for Keiser University (a private university in Fort Lauderdale, Florida), where he won the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics National Championship with a jump of 15.54 meters. He is also an accomplished long jumper.

Equally challenged by lack of training opportunities, beginning with the Ridgecrest earthquakes and made worse by the pandemic, Jayson Kovar qualified to compete in the discus event. Although not making the team, experiencing this level of competition was a once in a lifetime experience for Jayson and most of his family, but not for his father, Jay Kovar. Jay, the 1977 Kelly Award winner (football) and 1978 Burroughs graduate, competed as a thrower (discus) in the 1984 US Olympic Trials in the Los Angeles Coliseum and qualified for the 1984 Olympic Team as an alternate. A father and son qualifying for the US Olympic Trials in the same event must be a very rare achievement.

At Burroughs, Jay’s son Jayson was a four-time CIF Division III champion in both shot put and discus. He was the 2012 CIF State Indoor champion. At Southern Utah University, Jayson earned a Honorable Mention All-American award at the 2017 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

Kayla Kovar (Burroughs 2009), Jay’s daughter and Jayson’s sister committed to UCLA as a “thrower.” She later competed at Southern Utah University.

Kayla competed in the 2014 Division I NCAA national championships. She was the only athlete to qualify in three events; Hammer, shot put and discus. She holds five school records in throwing at Southern Utah University. An injury put her training and competing on hold, yet she is considering run at the 2024 Olympics.

The value of a truly dedicated teacher and coach to a student athlete cannot be overstated. The success and legacy of the “throwers” program at Burroughs can be traced directly back to Alan Stephens. Alan threw shot put at North High in Bakersfield.

Coming to Ridgecrest from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, Alan and his wife Rita were anchors of the humanities and English departments at Burroughs for three decades. By his dedication and passion, he would become a primarily self-taught expert in the discus event, passing that expertise to future Burroughs throwers by his partnership with Jay Kovar.

The following interview charts Jay Kovar’s journey as a thrower with his coach and mentor, Alan Stephens: “My freshman year (1975) was the first year that the Golden League had discus. Alan did a lot of research on discus throwing and began to teach us (Back then it was 8mm movies and film strips to see what technique was like, not cell phone video and YouTube). As a coach, he was engaged in every practice, even to the point that he ran wind sprints with us. He was very focused on proper technique.

All of the throwers loved him and worked hard to achieve new heights in their events. He brought out the best in everyone. I was the first discus thrower from Burroughs to qualify for and place at the California State High School meet. I placed second in 1978. Under Alan’s guidance, I qualified for the Olympic Trials in 1984 in the discus throw. I had just graduated from UC Berkeley with a Mechanical Engineering degree in 1983.

I returned home to work on base and to train with Alan. He and I lifted weights three days per week, watched each other throw three days per week and traveled to meets together in and around the LA area. I set my personal record at the time of 201 feet at the Mount SAC Relays in April 1984. This mark qualified me for the Olympic Trials, which were held in mid-June in the LA Coliseum. At the trials, I finished eighth and deemed an “alternate” for the Olympic Games. I was not called up, however. But that was OK. I was happy to be able to be there and experience it. In 1986, I qualified for and competed in the “Goodwill Games” trials. Here too, I placed eighth in the nation among legends in the sport like Al Oerter, Mac Wilkins and John Powell, all multiple medalists in the prior Olympic games. The Goodwill Games were held between the US and USSR to make amends for the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games boycotts. I retired from throwing in 1988 due injury.”

Jay would later become the Burroughs High School Head Track and Field coach, assisted by Charlie Novascone as the throwers coach. Charlie’s parents Bill and Edith were anchors of the Burroughs humanities and home economics faculty, Edith cooking up lavish banquets.

Burroughs’ only Olympian, Lenora Lacy Barnes graduated from Burroughs in 1983 and competed in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Throughout her school years and well into her athletic career, Lacy was mentored and supported by Linda Rolphs, James Monroe Middle School teacher and coach. The expertise that Alan Stephens and Jay Kovar, coupled with Jay’s competitive experience at the highest level of discus competition contributed greatly to Lacy’s success. Lacy was inducted into the Fresno County Hall of Fame, Class of 2000. Her name is inscribed along with such greats as Rafer Johnson, 1960 Gold Medalist in the Decathlon. The following tribute is published in her honor on the Hall of Fame website:

“Lenora Lacy Barnes-Mileham dreamed of competing for the USA in the Olympics and there were good reasons to believe that she would attain her goal. In grade school and at Burroughs High School in her hometown of Ridgecrest, California, Lacy was an all-around athlete, but track was her favorite. She was an outstanding 100 and 200-meter sprinter and competed in long jump. After a cancerous tumor in her left kidney was removed, her coaches in Ridgecrest encouraged her to work her way back into shape and pursue her goals. She eventually excelled at discus throwing and was recruited by a number of colleges.

Barnes-Mileham selected Fresno State, and as a freshman in 1984, won the first of four conference discus titles. She was on her way to becoming a three-time All American for the Bulldogs, though small for a thrower at 5’6” and 165 pounds.

Barnes-Mileham also focused on academics: ‘My attitude in track is something that I have in all areas of my life. I not only wanted to excel in track, but I did in academics as well. The balance of those two things has been a stabilizer for me. Achieving my Master’s degree is something I am very, very proud of.’ And Olympic dream never died. With numerous titles and a number three ranking in the U.S., it seemed possible. In fact, in 1992, she was a gold medal favorite.

She had the work ethic, training and coaches. But at the Olympic Trials (1992), stress and doubt hindered her performance. It was a discouraging time and she decided she was done with track and field and would concentrate on a new teaching job at Reedley College. But as the 1996 Olympics approached, Lacy’s husband, former Olympic hammer thrower Matt Mileham, encouraged his wife to try again. Along with physical training, she sought the help of a psychologist and exercise physiologist. It paid off. Barnes-Mileham competed in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta where she was the top American finisher in her event.”

Lacy is equally proud of her academic success as she recently earned a Ph.D. in psychology from Claremont Graduate School. Lacy continues to teach psychology at Reedley College.

Courtesy photo: 1983 BHS graduate Lacy Barnes at 1996 Olympics in Atlanta

Story First Published: 2021-07-23