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Saturday, August 5, 2000

One for the good guys

The Boz raises the bar for role-model athletes


  Pick up a copy of your favourite sports magazine and have a peek at the table of contents.

 You can bet there's a story about an athlete who has run afoul of the law, or his drug supplier, or his team, or his fans. That, unfortunately, is what often passes for sexy sports copy these days.

 Be honest. If you're checking out a periodical, and there are two stories side by side, which one do you read? -- a piece about a middle linebacker who, in a fit of 'roid rage, shoots the lights out of his ex-wife's condo and is later arrested for cocaine possession, or a tale about a young high jumper from a working-class family who earns his way up the international rankings and is such a nice, thoughtful kid, nobody seems to have have a discouraging word to say about him

 You want the dirt right?

 Well, there's not much dirt on Brampton's Mark Boswell, whose talent as a high jumper is matched only by his amicable nature. Here's the skinny on Canada's 6-foot-21/2, 165-pound high-jumping sensation.

 His mom, Norma, dad Levi, and sisters Yazmin, Claudette and Norma Jr., love him.

 His girlfriend, Chantelle Ewing, loves him.

 His high school coach, Gary Lubin, the man who unlocked his incredible talent, adores him.

 His college coach, Dan Pfaff, raves about him.

 His friends think he's a great guy.

 His former teachers at Central Peel High School are absolutely thrilled with his success as a jumper and, even more so, as a student at the University of Texas at Austin.

 His rival on the Canadian team, Kwaku Boateng, is one of his best friends.

 Donovan Bailey thinks he's a great guy.

 His pastor loves him.

 His baby girl loves him.

 His ... Oh ... There's something ... He and his girlfriend are the parents of a baby girl, Janee. Okay, so the guy isn't a saint. So what? The Vatican has canonized enough of them lately.

 Here's another fault: The guy trains too hard. So hard, in fact, that he won't allow his chronically sore ankles to heal properly, although he is expected to be okay for the Sydney Olympics next month.

 How's that for dastardly?

 You'll be hearing a lot from Mark Boswell in the future, if you haven't heard about him by now. Already the second-ranked high jumper in the world -- thanks to a leap of 2.35 on June 30 in Rome, one centimetre behind Konstantin Matusevich of Israel -- the Boz has been called the heir apparent to world record-holder Javier Sotomayor of Cuba. His mark is 2.45 metres. Lubin claims, after studying tapes of Boswell's silver-medal-winning jump at last year's world championships, that Boswell actually cleared at least 2.47.

 Pfaff calls Boswell a "rare bird," an athlete with God-given talent, an incredible vertical leap and sprinter's speed, combined with a total commitment to his sport.

 The sky literally seems to be the limit for Boswell, who immigrated with his family to Canada when he was in grade school and fell in love with his adopted country.

 "I blended in really quickly," Boswell said, during a recent competition in Oslo. "French, street hockey, snowball fights, I loved it. I had friends of every shade and colour. I was just a normal Canadian kid growing up."

 Perhaps, but there's nothing normal about the Jamaican-born Boswell's love for the Maple Leaf. He considers competing for Canada a huge honour and feels it's his duty to be a role model and to give back to the country.

 When Boswell and Boateng tied for second at the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, which later turned to gold after Sotomayor tested positive for cocaine, Boswell spent three hours at the front gates of the University of Manitoba Stadium, signing autographs and thanking -- thanking! -- the fans for showing up and cheering him on.

 At the world track and field championships a few weeks later in Seville, Spain, Boswell was locked in an epic battle for a medal with a slew of more experienced competitors, including Germany's Martin Buss, who babbled in Boswell's ear throughout the competition and continually walked in front of him as he prepared to jump. It clearly was a ploy to distract young Boswell, by far the most inexperienced jumper in the final. But it didn't work, as Boswell demonstrated a cool well beyond his years, nailing 2.29 metres on his third and final attempt. Then, with more than 60,000 spectators in the stands and millions watching on TV, he cleared 2.35 -- a Canadian record -- again, on his third and final try, winning the silver ahead of Buss, who jumped 2.32. Vyacheslav Voronin of Russia won with a leap of 2.37. Afterward, Boswell laughed when asked what Buss was going on about, declining the chance to slag the German for his apparent lack of sportsmanship.

 Winning the silver at the worlds was worth $30,000 US, which Boswell declined so he could retain his athletic scholarship, although he left college this past year to concentrate on the Sydney Olympics.

 Having just turned 23, it would be unfair to expect the first-time Olympian to bring a medal home from Down Under. But, given his progress in recent years, his silver at the worlds, his gold at the Pan Ams, it would be a disappointment if he didn't land on the podium. Boswell understands that, but insists the pressure is no big deal.

 "I have to be realistic about the Olympics," he said. "All the top guys are jumping around the same right now. At the Games, it will come down to guts and focus. After that, the key will be to make the final. And then, well, we'll see."

 There are a couple of things Boswell has going for him heading to Sydney, besides his enormous talent. He has earned a reputation as a "big-meet" performer and he has an excellent history in Australia.

 His breakthrough competition was the 1996 world junior track and field championships in Sydney. Ranked 12th heading into the meet, with a personal best of 2.20, Boswell defied the odds and nailed 2.24 to win the gold.

 "The higher the stakes, the higher he jumps," said Lubin, a retired North York school teacher. "And he does it for the right reasons. He loves the challenge. He also thinks high jump is an art form -- and it is."

 Lubin has a video of Boswell visiting a wildlife park near Sydney after the world juniors. In one scene, Boswell shyly approaches a baby kangaroo, kneels down beside it and then shakes its hand. Lubin said the kangaroos wouldn't let anyone else near them.

 It's very touching. The look of innocent joy on Boswell's face is something to behold.

 The kid is on the verge of athletic greatness. To those around him, he already has reached that mark as a human being.

 "He's a rare person," Ewing said. "The type of person you have to love."