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Her running outdistanced the arts

By Melinda Stivers LeachSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 9, 1980

Maplewood, N.J.

When Joetta Clark entered Columbia High School here four years ago, she was faced with a monumental decision: to pursue a running career or one equally as promising in either dance or piano. The loss to the fine arts world has been a gain for the sports world.

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I don't feel like I gave anything up," said Joetta, who recently finished her high school career by becoming the first athlete to win the New Jersey Meet of Champions four straight years. "Running hs been a great experience for me. I've set records, made the national team, and traveled all over the world. If you're good to it [running], it will repay you."

No one knows what would have become of Joetta had she kept up her many years of rugged training with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company in Manhattan or followed an aspiring career in classical piano, but it is obvious that she has made, and will continue to make, a name for herself as a runner.

Joetta began taking dance and piano lessons at the age of 7. At age 11 she was accepted by the Alvin Ailey Company and for four years Joetta and a friend commuted to New York every Saturday for six hours of class, including a ballet course from Ailey himself. She still plays the piano for her own enjoyment, but gave up both pursuits seriously for a passion her father introduced her to at the age of 9. Joseph Clark, then director of the Essex County Parks Commission, entered his daugther in the commission's 60-yard dash, and she ran away with her first of many trophies.

"I coached Joetta up to the age of junior high and then found it to be a duplication of effort to continue," said Joetta's father, a distance runner in college "It's too hard to follow up with your own kids. Having [Len] Klepack as her coach is one of the most outstanding things that has happened to Joetta."

Klepack, the Columbia High varsity track coach, recognized Joetta's talents immediately and nurtured them carefully with progressive training that has turned her into an international competitor.

Joetta, whose name combines those of her father and mother, Jetta, has grown from 5 ft. 4 1/2 in. and 97 pounds as a freshman to her current 5-8, 120 pounds. During that same period, her time in the 800 meters has dropped from 2:12.7 to 2 :03.7. That makes her the top-ranked high school athlete in the 800. (She's also the leader among 1,500-meter runners, with a time of 4:27, and 1,000-yard competitors, with a 2:34.5). And among all women, only a handful of top stars rank ahead of her in the 800.

"The average age of runners I compete against is 20," Joetta said. "I'm always the youngest, but because girls mature faster, a teen-ager can run with older women. When you run with women, you have to learn how to protect yourself and hold your ground. The women will knock you down, elbow you. You have to get in position and just try to stay away from the others."