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Nothing but air High-jump star Angie Bradburn looks back on her days in track and field

Another girls’ high school track season has come and gone, and the oldest record in the books still stands.

In the photo taken seconds after high jumper Angie Bradburn cleared 6 feet, 2 1/4 inches at Northrop’s Bruin Invitational in 1985, the Norwell junior punches the air with her fist as she comes off the mat.

At that moment she’s invincible, undefeated since placing second at state as a freshman.

She doesn’t even start jumping until her competitors have bowed out.

But Bradburn’s senior season is swallowed up by a stress fracture. Taking just one painful jump per meet keeps her streak alive. But the best she can manage at state is 5-8.

Though that would’ve tied for first in 2016. Back in 1986, it was uncharted territory for Bradburn: Third place.

“I know that there must be something I should learn from this,” the devastated 17-year-old said. “But I’m not sure what it is.” <br>

<center> OPENING A TIME CAPSULE</center> <br>

Thirty years later, Angie Bradburn Spangler opens a box of mementoes packed away so long that she wrinkles her nose as she sorts its contents, detecting a bit of mildew.

“Rachel’s been wanting me to go through this stuff,” she says, referring to her 13-year-old daughter, born the year after Spangler retired from competition.

Though she took up scrapbooking after Rachel’s younger brother, Ryan, came along, Spangler has never assembled a remembrance book of her own milestones. Souvenirs from her travels – including a bronze model in the 1995 Pan-Am Games – share space with wedding photos in a curio cabinet. But in the scramble of work and family life, details from her days as a four-time national high-jump champion rarely come up.

Like the time she yelled at Bill Cosby, for instance, when the tuxedo-clad celebrity inadvertently walked in front of her as she prepared to jump at the Millrose Games in New York City.

“I didn’t know it was him at first,” she said. “Millrose was fun because it was always such a zoo.”

Though she’s told Rachel that the University of Texas invited her to play volleyball as well as run track – she was tempted, but declined – she’s never mentioned being named to the Indiana girls high school All-Star basketball team.

“I forget all about that,” Spangler says, picking up a news clipping. She elected not to play so she could focus on defending her state track title. “I didn’t do it, so I didn’t remember it.” <br>

<center> THE PRODIGY </center><br>

Norwell girls track coach Bob Dahl will never forget the day Bradburn tried high jumping for the first time.

He was coaching middle schoolers then. She was 12, a sixth-grader standing in a crowd of would-be long jumpers. She was tall – though not quite the 5 feet, 11½ inches she would eventually top out at – yet graceful. Noting that her older male cousins had been good high jumpers, he suggested she go try that instead.

Bradburn, he said, kept running back to report her progress. When she cleared the conference record that same afternoon, he knew he had someone special on his hands.

“Angie was probably the most gifted athlete I’ve ever coached, and I’ve been coaching 40 years,” he said.

Dahl can tick off all five Norwell track records that still bear her name – high and low hurdles, 400-meter run, 4×400 relay and, of course, the high jump.

There’s something else Dahl remembers about Bradburn: The first time she fretted that she might not be able to replicate a jaw-dropping performance.

“I told her, ‘You’re not going to jump that well every time,’ ” he said. “ ’But if you work on it to the point that you can jump correctly every time, then ultimately that’s more important than if you make it over the bar.’ ” <br>

<center> IMPERFECT TIMING </center><br>

The Sports Illustrated photo captures Spangler in midflight, executing a fluid midair backbend, head thrust back, right arm reaching toward the camera.

The bar is set at 6-4, according to the magazine, dated Aug. 1, 1994. The Bislett Games in Oslo, Norway. Though Spangler’s long legs dangle several feet below on the other side, even the untrained eye can predict the result: Nothing but air.

Spangler examines the photo with the same scrutiny she now brings to informal Saturday morning practice sessions with Norwell’s high jumpers, including Rachel, but she can’t find any flaws in her form.

“It’s pretty good. That was my peak year. Unfortunately,” she says.

In 1994, Spangler was national indoor and outdoor champion. The Sports Illustrated photo, in which she happened to be wearing a pair of Oakley sunglasses, earned her another sponsorship, to go along with Nike and Powerade. And she nailed the best jump of her career, 6-6 at the USA Mobil Indoor Championships in Atlanta.

Her parents and fiance were there to see it happen. So was Pennsylvania sprinter Mike Spangler, whom she’d met 10 years earlier at the U.S. Junior Nationals in Los Angeles. They’d dated long distance all through high school.

“Mike came and sat behind us, and I kept turning around and talking to him the whole time, ignoring my fiance,” Spangler recalls.

They married in 1996. That curio cabinet in their living room? It also contains his-and-hers NCAA championship trophies, along with a decorative plate from that meet in Norway. <br>

<center> WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN </center><br>

If the Olympics had been held in 1994 instead of 1996, “I probably would have done really well,” Spangler says.

In 1992 she tied for second at the U.S. Olympic trials, but had one more miss than two others who cleared the same height. They went to Barcelona. She didn’t.

That height, ironically, was 6 feet, 2 1/4 inches – the same as her best jump in high school. That’s how it goes sometimes. Even Bulgarian world record-holder Stefka Kostadinova, whose 1987 leap of 6 feet, 10 1/4 inches at the World Championships in Rome has been around almost as long as Spangler’s high school mark, never managed to jump that high in the Olympics.

“I beat her once,” Spangler says. “But I think she was having a bad day.”

By 1996, Spangler had joined Mike in Gettysburg, Pa. Though she worked out at the small college where he coached, she had to get her coaching via long-distance. It didn’t work.

Even in 2000, her last go-around, “I still felt like I could’ve made it” if things had gone just right. But they didn’t.

“It hangs over you,” she says. “Every time I’ve watched that tape from the 1992 trials, I keep hoping for a different result. But it’s always the same.” <br>

<center> LANDING BACK HOME AGAIN </center><br>

Downshifting from being one of the most gifted high jumpers on the planet to a life in which she and her family are firmly entrenched in the so-called 99 percent hasn’t been easy.

“I wish somebody had encouraged me to go to physical therapy school after getting my degree in exercise physiology,” she said. “If I had, I’d be making $50,000-60,000 by now.”

Instead, after retiring in 2001, Spangler quit a dead-end job at Gold’s Gym to take a better-paying spot at a furniture store. She’s been in that line of work ever since.

After returning to Wells County a few years ago to be closer to her parents, Angie went to work for Ossian Furniture, while Mike sells cars at Mike Anderson Chevrolet a few blocks away.

Like the competitor she once was, Spangler embraces each new challenge like there’s a medal at stake, whether it’s a road-sign alphabet game or finding the best health-insurance deal.

According to a note lying on the kitchen table, she’s already won the most coveted title at this stage in her life: “Best Mom Ever!” <br>

<i> Tanya Isch Caylor blogs about postfat living at www.90in9.wordpress.com. Contact her at tischcaylor@gmail.com. This column is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel. </i>