By ELLIOTT DENMAN
The first time Derek Drouin ever peered up to a high jump bar perched at 8 feet/ 2.44 meters, he was staggered.
"How can anybody possibly jump this high?" he remembers telling himself.
"It seemed totally unattainable."
Except, perhaps, by a bird, a plane, or that blue-costumed, red-caped guy with the "S" shield on his chest.
Well, life - and Derek Drouin's high jump career - have rolled right along.
The 8-foot "barrier" - achieved by just one man - Cuba's Javer Sotomayor who cleared 8-0 / 2.44 in 1989 and then 8-0 1/2 / 2.45 in 1993 - remains an incredibly formidable challenge but after 21 years that "Soto" WR seems actually attainable by another athlete - or several of them.
Of course, it's the Russians (Bohdan Bondarenko, Ivan Ukhov, Aleksey Dmitrik. Aleksandr Shustov), the Qatari Mutaz Essa Barshim and top American Erik Kynard who head the most-likelies list, but anyone disregarding Derek Drouin's chances of going 8 or more is making a big mistake.
The John Thomas High Jump event at the 107th NYRR Millrose Games will be the official HJ opener to Drouin's season - actually, he had competed in the first day of a low-key heptathlon event a few weeks ago - and something spectacular seems in the cards.
"The Armory's a great venue," he said in a pre-Millrose interview. "We all know the track's one of the fastest in the world, but the high jump area is excellent, too. The whole facility is
Drouin, the 24-year-old Sarnia, Ontario resident and five-time NCAA champion for Indiana, comes to New York and he's pumped.
"There's a strong field (including U.S. #2 Dusty Jonas, Canadian pal Martin Mason, Bahamian Ryan Ingraham, Penn's Maalik Reynolds and Albany's Alex Bowen) so something big can happen."
Of course, it's all in the cherished Millrose legacy of John Thomas.
In 1959, the then-17-year-old Boston University freshman became the first man ever to clear 7 feet indoors, as a Millrose capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden jumped for joy with him, and Millrose Games director Howard Schmertz jumped in delight with all of them.
Schmertz would later call it his greatest-ever Millrose thrill.
In later years, John Thomas would return to the Millrose Games many times - as the
HJ event's top official. Sadly, he passed away a little over two years ago, but those great memories live on.
Well, 7 feet is just about opening height at many meets these days.
Drouin's done it dozens and dozens of times and owns a career best of 2.38 / 7-9 3/4, which he achieved claiming the bronze medal, back of Bondaenko and Essa Barshim last Aug. 15 at the World Championships in Moscow. (He'd taken the bronze at the 2012 London Olympic Games, too.)
This was HJ drama at its best.
When he cleared 2.32 / 7-7 1/4, he thought that would get him a medal. But no, it didn't.
Same for 2.35, which Ukhov also cleared, keeping four in the hunt for the three podium spots as the bar was upped to 2.38/7-9 3/4.
When he cleared and Ukhov didn't, the Moscow crowd groaned but the medalists were now determined. Bondarenko finally soared the year's high of 2.41 / 7-10 3/4 to clinch the gold, as Barshim and Drouin bowed out.
A reunion of these HJ elites is scheduled for March 7-9 in Sopot, Poland.
Drouin has already been named to Canada's team for these IAAF World Indoor
Championships and will duke it out with his friendly foes. (Team USA will be determined at next week's Indoor Nationals in Albquerque.)
Given the sure-to-be ideal conditions in Sopot, might an 8-footer / 2.44 be feasible?
Well, why not? The world stage is on the rise.
Sotomayor's 2.43 / 7-11 1/2 has been the world indoor HJ record since 1989.
Drouin has been a winner at virtually stop along his track and field career path.
He first jumped at the Armory seven years ago, competing in the HJ and the pentathlon at the National Scholastic Indoor Meet. A versatile athlete, with "13 point 80 something" high hurdles talent, and 7-meter / 22-11 3/4 long jump ability, Drouin eventually gave up all the other events when he realized his clearest pathway to track and field's pinnacles was as a high jumper.
The move has paid off- big-time.
His array of gold medals has stretched from the Canadian Junior Nationals, to the Canadian Seniors, to the Big 10s, to the NCAAs. And now he's more than ready to take on the world. Indiana has loved him -specially so after he was named winner of the Jesse Owens Award as No. 1 athlete in the Big 10, and the Bowerman Award, as the NCAA's top male track and field athlete. (Another Canadian, Southern Utah distanceman Cam Levins had preceded him as Bowerman winner in 2012.)
A kinesiology major at Indiana, Drouin at this moment has no idea how he's going to put that degree to work in "the real world." But if he could do something "working with athletes," that would be a top preference.
The high jump event lends itself perfectly to marketing and promotional efforts,
and Drouin has always been happy trying "to grow" his event.
He jumped at the Eberstadt, Germany "high jump only" event last summer and loved it.
He's looking ahead to the special HJ at a HY-Vees Super Market in DesMoines, Iowa that will be a prelude to the "regular" Drake Relays HJ on April 26th.
He thinks it's about time more innovative events like these were created to raise the profile of track and field - and his favorite event, of course - in "the States," in Canada, everywhere.
Have jumping shoes, will travel - that's going to be Derek Drouin's life, at least through the 2020 Olympic Games, maybe beyond.