After two near-misses in track and another in volleyball, University of Hawaii senior Amber Kaufman finally seized her NCAA championship yesterday, soaring to the high jump gold medal at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.
"I’m just excited. I have a weird feeling in my stomach," Kaufman said. "I can’t wait to get my ring and wear it everyday."
After passing at the first height (5 feet, 7 3/4 inches), and waiting out a rain delay that pushed her first jump to more than an hour after the scheduled start, Kaufman cleared four heights on her first attempt.
The last came at 6-1 1/4 . It would be the winner.
Ten of the 24 jumpers missed at the opening height, in part because of the bad conditions.
"It was in the 50s and rain was coming down in sheets, going almost horizontal," UH coach Carmyn James said. "They went for about 10 minutes, then shut down because it was just a lake out there."
Kaufman kept her cool, literally and figuratively. "It was a little cold and a little rainy," she acknowledged. "I couldn’t have asked for more. Well, it was a little too cold."
Arizona senior Elizabeth Patterson—who beat Kaufman for the NCAA Indoor title in March—did not clear 6-1 1/4 on her first try. Earlier, she had two misses at 5-10 3/4 . She elected to pass on her final two tries at 6-1 1/4 and move on to 6-2 1/4 .
Because she had more misses than Kaufman, even if Patterson cleared 6-1 1/4 , then both failed at 6-2 1/4 , Kaufman would win the gold.
When Patterson missed her first two tries at the last height, giving her three misses in a row, it clinched gold for Kaufman.
"The bottom line is, Amber was just super-competitive, but she didn’t let her competitiveness get away from her," James said. "She stayed light and happy, or so it appeared on the outside. Until Patterson missed those last two attempts she could have pulled it off."
Kaufman ultimately had three misses at 6-2 1/4 , barely hitting the bar on her final jump. Her personal best is 6-4, but yesterday was more about competing than setting records, particularly with the pressure and poor conditions.
"It comes down to not making mistakes and believing you are good enough," said Castle graduate Bryan Clay, the 2008 Olympic decathlon champion who has followed Kaufman’s career from a distance. "You have to be so focused and find that ‘happy place’ from ‘Happy Gilmore’—find that zone where you can just compete. You can’t be thinking about doing this and that, get my arm here, get my foot there. All you can think about is if someone makes that bar I’m going to make that bar. If they do it again, I’m going to make that next bar."
Kaufman did that to perfection yesterday.
"I was in the zone as much as I can be," she said. "I’m kind of a head case."
Yesterday, she left the thinking to her coach.
"Inside I was just doing cartwheels and getting teary eyed and trying not to show it," said James, who watched from the coaches’ balcony. "I had all kinds of people come up and congratulate me. I tried to take it in stride, like it happens all the time, but I got pretty choked up."
It is the second gold medal the Rainbow Wahine have won in track and field. Gwen Loud captured the long jump in 1984. UH dropped its track program the following year and James restarted it in 2001.
Kaufman earned All-America second-team honors in volleyball in December, when the ‘Bows reached the final four. This is her fifth All-America performance (top eight) in track. She was bronze medalist at last year’s NCAA Outdoors and grabbed silver at this year’s NCAA Indoors.
Kaufman came into this NCAA championship as the top-ranked jumper and is ranked No. 3 among Americans this season. The San Jose, Calif., native, who came to UH on a volleyball scholarship, has one year of track eligibility left.