Brimley Jumper's Leap Soars On as Finals Best

June 6, 2019

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

BRIMLEY – Thirty years ago this spring, John Payment became an unlikely part of Michigan high school track & field history.

In some respects, it almost seems like yesterday the Brimley High School senior soared 7-feet, 1 inch, to set an MHSAA Finals high jump record that still stands. In fact, Payment is the only Upper Peninsula athlete in this sport to own an all-Finals record – meaning his performance remains the best all-time from any class or division in either peninsula.

Payment is still approached by strangers about his performance that 1989 day in Marquette, and is stunned people remember what he did.

Think about it: A high school senior with a minimal high jump history from a tiny Upper Peninsula town accomplished a feat that has not been duplicated by hundreds of athletes from big cities like Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids.

It is mind-boggling it happened, and mind-boggling the record still stands. Talk about doing something very notable well beneath any radar screen.

"It is kind of neat to say no one in the state of Michigan has ever done this," Payment said in a telephone interview on the eve of the 2019 Upper Peninsula Track & Field Finals. "It is actually kind of weird to say it.

"It is very humbling. It is amazing people haven't forgotten. It never gets old."

Payment still finds it hard to believe it happened. He had never been able to break the 6-10 barrier in a meet, even though practice jumps convinced him he could surpass that mark.

At the U.P. Finals, he even passed until the bar got to 6-11. He missed twice at 7-0, then easily cleared it on his final try, by a couple of inches. He then asked officials to put the bar at 7-1, but his next jump was delayed until the height could be measured officially to ratify the record attempt.

By that time, the public address announcer had explained Payment’s opportunity to the huge crowd in attendance at what remains the Upper Peninsula's largest one-day prep athletic contest. The meet basically came to a stand-still as athletes in the infield gathered around the high jump bar.

"(The official) stood on a folding chair and measured the bar at 7-1," said Payment. "He then told me, 'Son, if you do this, it is a state record.'"

After clearing that record-setting height, Payment said, "I was excited. Then I tried 7-2, but my legs got rubbery and I just couldn't do it. They said I cleared 7-1 by 3-4 inches. I just couldn't do it anymore. I had an adrenalin rush, but I just wore out."

Obviously very excited at what had just happened, the request to go at 7-2 came up instantly – and he never really had a chance to collect his thoughts and rejoice.

"I couldn't wait for the other jumpers to jump because they were done. It was like boom, boom, boom. I couldn't just sit down and let it sink in," he recalled.

In the immediate aftermath, Payment said he understood what had just happened. "It was huge; it was like a sigh of relief that I just did 7-feet. I was more in awe than anything. (But) I didn't get a chance to savor it."

The realization of what he did hit home on the way back to Brimley when he learned the Detroit Free Press was trying to contact him for an interview. "It was like, wow, this is something. Now it is a bigger deal. It took a little while to have it soak in about the caliber of the jump," he said.

Payment and teammates Bob Carrick and Kevin Sutton finished 1-2-3 in the high jump in U.P. Class D that day, and Payment said having good teammates and their competition helped him reach record heights. In fact, Carrick helped him adjust his approach by having Payment start a step closer on the blacktop rather than begin on the grass.

"I had three teammates always helping. We would be laughing and joking. It wasn't stressful. That was helpful. It was an individual event, but we made it our individual event," he said.

He also adjusted from a J approach to a straight-on Fosbury Flop to clear the bar.

Blessed with strong legs, Payment said he "messed around in the gym" and then his coach, John Morrison, said he should try the event. "I cleared it pretty good," said Payment.

As a junior, he drove to Mount Pleasant and worked with the Central Michigan University coach, who later came to Brimley for some on-site coaching. "We just jumped. It was fun," he said, indicating he quickly was clearing 6-8 but the mental block struck at 6-10. "I couldn't get past it," he said, even though he was sure he could clear that barrier.

He is still shocked at the response of athletes and fans who focused on his state record effort. "High jump is not a flashy sport, it is not the main (track & field) attraction," he said.

"It was definitely exciting (that day). Once I cleared seven feet, people went crazy. Believe it or not, but I just focused on doing it. I don't think I noticed the crowd until afterward. People shook my hand and asked for autographs. It was really something."

The accomplishment opened a whole new world to the innocent youngster. He competed in all-star track invitationals in Indiana and Chicago against athletes from across the country, quite a leap for someone from the shores of Gitchee Gumee just south of the Canadian border. In fact, he flew to Chicago, which was his first airplane ride.

His part of the world was so small, but suddenly it had enlarged well beyond his imagination.

College track coaches and recruiters were now after the unsung champion, who was somewhat uncomfortable being the talk of the town.

He turned down the chance to attend college and compete at the higher levels of high jump. "The opportunities were there, but for me it just wasn't my thing," he conceded, indicating it became more important to get a job and start earning money.

"It was a real eye-opener. You don't realize what is all out there, and to leave a small town and see what was out there," he said, adding more classroom work was not a priority.

"The schooling I wanted to be done with," he said, noting his parents encouraged him to attend college. "Maybe I was just scared. My grades were not the best. Life goes on, the what-ifs go on."

Payment, who also played football (wide receiver), basketball and baseball at 6-3, 175 pounds, for the Bays simply decided to move on with his life. He got a job with the road commission and still works there, although he now weighs about 275.

"The world is full of what-ifs. I've got some regret I didn't go on and try, but we've got four kids and four grandkids and another one on the way. I'm doing all right," he said.

Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012 and currently is in a second stint as the interim in that position. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.

PHOTO: Brimley's John Payment flies over the high jump bar in 1989 to set an all-MHSAA Finals record in the event that still stands. (MHSAA file photo)

Aspirations High as Reigning Champion Hackett Vaults Into New Season

By Pam Shebest
Special for

March 14, 2023

KALAMAZOO — Harrison Wheeler has not been a pole vaulter for very long – two weeks to be exact – but he already has some lofty goals.

Southwest CorridorThe sophomore is aiming for the Kalamazoo Hackett Catholic Prep record board and, if he makes it, he will be in good company.

Coach Shelly (Martin) Germinder, a 2001 Hackett graduate, still holds the girls record of 10 feet, 2½ inches.

“I’m hoping to have my name next to hers (on the record board),” Wheeler said.

The sophomore has a few feet to go before surpassing current record holder Brian Kucinich, who vaulted 12 feet, 6 inches in 1992.

Wheeler’s unofficial best is 9 feet; officially it is 8 feet, 6 inches.

“That is going to be a very big jump in my pole vaulting career,” he said.

Wheeler is one of 42 athletes on the reigning MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 champion boys team, which includes 12 seniors and 13 juniors. Besides Wheeler, the team has six sophomores and 10 freshmen.

One of the returners is senior Liam Mann, who helped lead the Irish to the Finals title last year.

Mann, Andrew Finley, Evan Wurtz and Isaac Backman won the 800-meter relay with a time of 1:31.55 last season, setting a school record as well.

While he lost his relay mates, Mann said there are good runners to replace them.

“(Senior) Brice Brown is coming out to do track, and I’ve been working with him this winter,” Mann said. “Jude Coffman, who is a sophomore, is coming out this year. I think he’s going to be a good addition to our 4-by-1.

“(Junior) Gabe Oeurn, last year he was running solid times, but this year he’s been putting in the work and I think he’ll be able to break that 12-second barrier.”

Mann, who will attend Ashland (Ohio) University on a track scholarship in the fall, also added gold in the 200-meter dash (22.82) last season.

“Last year, I played basketball and was able to lift to keep in shape,” he said. “This year, I wanted to focus all my time on track, so I’ve been doing indoor track, practicing once a week and going to meets on weekends.”

He continued to put his skills on display as a running back during football season with Kalamazoo United, ending the fall with 1,413 rushing yards on 177 carries and 267 receiving yards on 10 catches.

Opportunities & possibilities

The biggest group of competitors impacted by graduation are the sprinters, coach Charissa Dean said.

“Hackett’s been really big on sprinting talent in general,” she said. “But track has 17 events, and only two of them are open sprint events and two are relays.

Clockwise from top left: Hackett head track & field coach Charissa Dean, Liam Mann, Germinder and Gavin Sehy. “The other 13 are wide open for possibilities, and there’s a lot of younger talent that’s coming back this year. While they didn’t go to the state meet, they are the next generation of athletes coming up.”

Among that next generation are freshmen Marek Butkiewicz and Sean Siems, who “are incredibly talented athletes,” Dean said.

“(Junior) Gavin Sehy figured out how to do the distance thing this year in cross country.”

Sehy said he wanted to run track, but wasn’t sure where he fit.

“I thought I was mid-distance when I was younger, but my dad forced me to do cross country my sixth-grade year and it turned out I was decent at it so I kept doing (long distance) in track,” he said.

“It’s kind of brutal at times to train for long distance, mentally and physically, because you have to go on long runs, but I have fun with it. At the cross country state finals, I hit an 11 flat split at the two-mile, which beat my 3,200 best from last season, so we have yet to see my best times.”

Butkiewicz and Sehy have been running consistently six days a week all winter to prepare for their first meet, March 22.

“I’ve never done track,” the freshman said. “I know I can perform well. I know my times compared to other people.”

A sophomore this year, Alex Dumont had a 400-meter time that “came out of nowhere,” Dean said. “Toward the end of the season we recruited him to do the 4x8, so an 800-meter runner. That kid came through.

‘We actually took him to the state meet in the 4x8. He did the lead leg, and I clocked him at a 2:07. He was sprinting. It was an amazing leg in that relay.”

Seeing potential

It was Germinder who converted Wheeler to the pole vault last year.

“Harrison’s a strong athlete, and just the way his mind works in that he asks questions and he wants to learn and he wants to improve,” she said.

“He wants to work hard, and he wants to put in the time. That’s something you need for that, along with the athletic component.”

The Irish celebrate last season’s Finals championship, from left: Dean, Sehy, Logan St. Martin, Alex Dumont, Mitch Eastman, Nick Doerr and Germinder. Wheeler, who said he was shocked at being successful right away, competed for two weeks last season before a foot injury suffered on a vault sidelined him.

“It took her a whole season to finally convince me to do it,” he said. “I grabbed a pole one day and ended up being really good at it. Ever since, I’ve had a love of it.

“The feeling I have once I get in the air is almost like I’m just floating. When you get really good vaults and you get that nice height and good form, you get what we call a ‘stall.’ You just feel like you’re sitting up in the air for a second. It’s gotta be the coolest thing ever.”

Germinder has the background to help the Irish vaulters.

While at Hackett, she competed in the AAU National Championships and said she learned from the best, Oran Mitchell, a noted pole vaulting coach.

Her own coaching style revolves around the safety of the athletes.

“You can teach a lot of people to grab hold of a pole and pop yourself over,” she said. “But I want to make sure my athletes are safe. That’s really, really important to me, and that’s something that was instilled in me.

“When you’re jumping 6 to 16 feet, that’s a long way to fall. Safety is very important to me. If you’re not willing to put in the time, then I’m not the coach for you.”

Germinder said one of the foundations on which the team is built is leadership, which was instilled in the younger athletes by last year’s seniors.

“That’s one of the things our program is built on,” she said. “If you’re there because you want to get ready for the next sports season, we’ll coach you for that.

“If you want to be a state champion, we’ll coach you for that. That’s the really unique thing about track. There’s something for everyone, whatever that might be.”

As for the girls team, numbers are steadily climbing.

Five years ago, the team had just two girls. This year, 25 girls are on the team.

No matter girls or boys, track or field events, one thing is common for all the athletes.

“We pray before every meet, we put God first, and all those pieces have fallen into place for us.” Germinder said.

“I really believe that foundation is what is going to be our success this year. It’s there, it’s just a different team.”

Pam ShebestPam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Hackett's Harrison Wheeler points to the pole vaulting record he hopes to break this season, while pole vaulting coach Shelly (Martin) Germinder points to the record she still holds at the school. (Middle) Clockwise from top left: Hackett head track & field coach Charissa Dean, Liam Mann, Germinder and Gavin Sehy. (Below) The Irish celebrate last season’s Finals championship, from left: Dean, Sehy, Logan St. Martin, Alex Dumont, Mitch Eastman, Nick Doerr and Germinder. (Top photo and head shots by Pam Shebest; team photo courtesy of Hackett track & field.)