Between 1969 and 1975 John Craft was the best triple jumper in the United States. But unlike other athletes who have ascended to such a level, after training an event all of their lives, Craft never tried the triple jump until he joined the Eastern Illinois track team in 1966. A standout sprinter and long jumper from Momence, IL, with bests of 10 seconds for 100 yards and 22-2 1/2 in the long jump, Craft thought he would just try to improve those marks and possibly make some of the Panther relay teams during his stay. But head coach Pat O'Brien soon informed him that all long jumpers would also triple jump. Freshmen at the time were not allowed to compete on the varsity, and Panther rookies only took part in a few meets. So Craft was able to spend most of his first season warming up to the new event and learning the technique, eventually marking an impressive debut of 44-10. He progressed steadily until he was O'Brien's top point-getter his sophomore year, taking home double jump wins in most of the meets in which he took part. By the end of the 1967 season he had added nearly five feet to his best in hitting 49-2 to claim the NAIA championship. But Craft was just getting started.
What made him ascend to the national level after only a year of competition wasn't so much his athletic ability, but rather his intense desire to be the best. If there was a way to win he found it. To him it was simple; whatever tasks he needed to perform to get from A to B, Craft went after with compelling zest. But mid-way through his collegiate career he reached a plateau, and could not better 50 feet. On top of that, he was dealing with a back injury and a pulled hamstring, which blew out most of his junior season. Though he may have looked it, Craft wasn't down by any means. His desire to be the best was stronger than ever. He knew his physical ability could only take him so far, and that any further improvement would come from better technique. He started watching films of Poland's Jozef Schmidt, the world record holder at the time with a 1960 jump of 55-10 1/2. Craft would spend hours upon hours analyzing the film, closely studying every aspect of Schmidt's technique. Soon he adapted his own form to accomodate what he'd learned, and exploded into a whole new class of triple jumper. He won his second NAIA title his senior year with a jump of 52-2 1/2, which he later said took every ounce of his ability. The next week at the NCAA college division championships, however, was when his true potential began to show itself.
One of the competitors took the lead at 52-6, and Craft was blown away, remembering how hard it was to get his own 52-2 1/2. To make his anxiety heighten even further, he had to urgently use the washroom. But there were no facilities close to the track, and he didn't want to give up either of the last two of six jumps he had remaining. Craft didn't think he could do much with a full bladder. But he gathered as much concentration as he could anyhow and barreled down the runway, wincing every step of the way. The result was the most powerful hop-step-jump of his life, as he touched down at 53-9. It was the best jump in the world at the time, and reporters flocked in around him, wanting to know all about this upset winner from little Eastern Illinois. Overjoyed, Craft promised to speak with them all if they would first allow him a quick trip to the washroom.
He was now cock of the walk, and went to the NCAA university division meet with an oozing ego. However, his overconfidence was stifled quick when he could muster only 51-2 3/4 and placed third. Craft promised himself then that he would never again lose his focus during a competition, no matter how much of a favorite he was. Next was the AAU championships, the biggest meet in the country. Craft already had had an outstanding season, but felt he still needed to prove himself. He knew that to win here he would have to knock off the best jumpers in the United States, but he was ready.
Any reputation that Craft had as a clutch performer was further strengthened when he beat one of the favorites, Norm Tate, 52-9 1/2 to 52-6. All of a sudden he was undisputably the best jumper in the country. But over the next two years Craft warmed up to the idea nicely, winning the AAU title again in 1971.
By 1972 he was a force to be reckoned with internationally, and proved it with flying colors at the inaugural U.S.A. vs U.S.S.R. indoor dual meet in Richmond, VA. There he locked horns with the man who is still considered the greatest triple jump competitor of all-time, Victor Saneyev. Saneyev, the 1968 Olympic champion and world record holder outdoors, had two weeks earlier set a new indoor world record of 55-8 1/2. Craft, whose best now was 54-6, was unruffled, and kept saying to himself that what Saneyev did two weeks ago wasn't going to get him first place today. Craft had recently earned a position as assistant track coach at Eastern, and did all of his training in Charleston, under the watchful eye of Coach O'Brien. He felt a certain strength in training at EIU and never left for a competition until he absolutely had to.
He arrived in Richmond the day before the competition and sat on the runway for an hour visualizing what was to come. He knew that he would be battling the best triple jumper in the world the next day, and started psyching himself up for the task at hand. He thought it would definitely take a 55-foot effort to beat the Soviet. He was right.
The place was packed at the start of the triple jump, which had only four competitors, two from each country. Here Craft eyed the muscular world record holder, and watched as Saneyev took the lead by belting out a first round jump of 54-8. His jump stood firm through four rounds, but by now Craft was fired up, and poured everything he had into his fifth attempt. Craft knew from the roar of the crowd that his jump was further than Saneyev's. When the distance was anounced, Craft went wild. He had jumped 55-5, a new American record, and just shy of Saneyev's world mark. Craft then turned to the Soviet and said, "I've got you," silently to himself. Craft continued to glare at him, and knew by the way Saneyev turned his head away, that he had it won. He was right, as Saneyev's final attempts were meager, and not even close to Craft's distance.
Now all of a sudden an Olympic berth, and even a medal, became realistic goals. Craft won his third outdoor AAU title with ease, and entered the Olympic Trials as the favorite. But this was big stuff, and Craft knew it. The anxiety of the situation grabbed a hold him so much, in fact, that he refused to leave his dorm room before the meet at the University of Oregon in fear of twisting an ankle on a curb or falling down a flight of stairs, thus incurring an injury that would keep him from competing. The triple jump proved very competitive, and it took a jump of 53-2 to make the final. Elimisteeplewebd in the qualifying, in fact, was Milan Tiff, the 1970 AAU champion. In the final, Craft was a time bomb ready to blow. He wanted to win, but he soon saw that he had his work cut out for him when Dave Smith plugged out a 56-0 effort on one of his early attempts. The distance set a new American record, but Craft responded with a trademark come from behind explosion of 56-2. The wind was blowing slightly over the allowable 2 meters per-second for Craft's jump to be listed as a record, but he was the winner of trials and headed for Munich, Germany.
Craft crossed the Atlantic with the intention to win, and with good reason. He had already beaten the favorite, Victor Saneyev, in a major competition, and had just jumped farther than any American ever had. Big expectations seemed appropriate. He knew the Olympic Games was the biggest competition in the world. But upon seeing everything first hand, Craft was awestruck. Most of the events were held one at a time, and with 80,000 people watching, Craft at once realized who he was and what he was about to do. The trials of the triple jump were run into a head wind, and Craft barely made the cutoff distance for the finals. Americans Dave Smith and Art Walker, who was fourth in Mexico City four years earlier, were stymied by the gusts and and did not qualify. This left Craft to get the job done for the United States alone.
Pedro Perez of Cuba, who had beaten Saneyev's world record by a 1/4 inch with a 57-1 jump in 1971, withdrew from the qualifying rounds due to an injury, but his absence didn't take much away from the depth of talent in the final, which was capped by Mexico City's gold and silver medalists, Saneyev and Nelson Prudencio of Brazil. Saneyev was hot that September day in Munich, and got things started with a first round jump of 56-11 1/4, which left the rest of the competitors scrambling for a world record performance to beat him. But none of them came close except Jorg Drehmel of East Germany, who went 56-9 1/2 in the fifth round. Craft wasn't his usual self, but still produced a 55-2 3/4 effort for fifth, less than nine inches away from Prudencio's best, which won him the bronze.
Though somewhat disappointed with his Olympic performance, Craft kept at, and beat Saneyev again at the 1973 U.S.A. vs U.S.S.R dual meet indoors. This time with a dramatic fifth-round effort that beat Saneyev by a mere 1/4 inch. Craft went on to win the outdoor AAU title twice more. After his win in 1974, he was hailed as "King John" by Track & Field News for his domination of the U.S. triple jump ranks, as well as his pounding of the three-time Olympic champion twice on U.S. soil. By 1976 Craft was ready to move on with his life. He still competed, but not with the same zest as before. After missing a place on the Olympic team, he decided to hang up his spikes and start a familiy with his wife, Joy, and concentrate on his coaching. Today he is the successful head coach of Eastern's women's track and cross country teams as well as the proud father of two daughters, Jonica and Jody.
Fifth place 1972 Olympic Games - 55-2 3/4
1972 Olympic Trials champion - 56-2
1969, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974 AAU champion -
52-9 1/2, 54-7, 54-10, 55-8 3/4, 54-4 1/4
1972, 1973 Indoor AAU champion - 54-4 1/2, 54-8 1/2
1972, 1973 U.S.A-U.S.S.R. Indoor dual meet champion -
55-5, 54-6 3/4
1967 and 1969 NAIA champion - 49-2, 52-2 1/2
1969 NCAA-CD champion - 53-9
1971 USTFF Indoor champion - 54-1 1/2
(from the 1993 BlueBook)