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‘The best big-school girls high jumper ever in Minnesota’

In 1986, Linda Barsness set the girls high jump record at the Minnesota High School Track and Field Championship Meet. That record still stands in Class AA. She went undefeated in Minnesota high school high jumping for three straight years. And track probably wasn’t even her best sport.

Linda Bay
Linda Bay.
Contributed / Linda Bay
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Al Gilman didn’t go into the track-and-field off-season having any extra thoughts about one of his Rochester John Marshall freshmen, Linda Barsness.

A veritable encyclopedia when it comes to track-and-field knowledge and a junkie for his sport, Gilman was coaching the Rockets girls at the time. This was in 1983.

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As for Barsness, she was no more than just a promising though not earth-shattering high jumper back in the spring of ’83. She did clear 5-foot-1 to close that season, which was good. But Gilman looked at her stature—5-foot-9 at the time—and didn’t imagine she’d ever do much more than that.

“She was no significant (athlete) as a freshman,” Gilman says.

Little did Gilman know that Barsness wouldn’t only become “significant,” she’d evolve into one of the most elite athletes that Rochester has ever seen. With his help, and others, she’d become a household name, a three-time state high jump champion who’d close out her senior year by becoming the best big-school girls high jumper ever in Minnesota.

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Barsness set the state-meet high jump record in 1986 and nobody has been able to break it in Class AA since, though Blaine’s Madison Schmidt tied it in 2019.

Last season, Nyalaam Jok of Class A school Annandale set the all-time state meet record by going 6 feet. But Barsness is still No. 1 in Class AA.

‘I keep waiting for someone to break it. ‘

“I am super proud of the record; it’s been a fun thing to share with my kids,” says the 53-year-old, who is now Linda Bay and lives in San Diego with her husband and two kids. “My dad will call me and say that the record still stands (after every state meet in early June). My whole family is really proud of it. And honestly, I’m shocked that it still is the record. I keep waiting for someone to break it. When they do, I’ll call them or send them a letter to say congratulations. I’ve had it for 35 years. I’ve had my run.”

Sharon and Lawrence Barsness have three children. Eric is the oldest, then Ann, then Linda.

JM Rochord 1986 Barsness.jpg
Linda Barsness in 1986.
Contributed

The girls were both athletic naturals growing up and leaned heavily in that direction.

It seemed every physical activity that Linda tried, she excelled at it. In high school, Bay was a three-sports star—volleyball, basketball, and track and field. She was All-State in volleyball and basketball before eventually accepting a scholarship to play volleyball at Division I power University of Nebraska.

Prior to high school, there was something else. Bay excelled in an activity that rarely intersects the volleyball-basketball-track-and-field tract. She was a figure skater. Sharon, Linda’s mom, believes it played a big role in her daughter’s overall athletic development.

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She says it particularly aided her high jumping, with its demand for fluid elegance from its stars. Sure enough, Gilman notes that Bay arched her back as perfectly and dramatically as anyone he’d ever seen as she executed the “Fosbury Flop” high-jump technique. That was with the back of her head going over the bar first, then Bay massively arching her back in order to again not skim it, before finally kicking her legs up into the air at the last instant to avoid the bar one more time, before safely descending to the mat below.

“I think figure skating gave Linda some of her balance and grace,” mom Sharon says. “She did that through ninth grade.”

There was also that growth spurt.

Oh my, did Gilman ever like the looks of what happened to Bay from the spring of her freshman year to the spring of 1984. Her “significance” as an athlete took on a completely different feel once he got a look at her then. She’d gone from a 5-9 freshman to a 6-2 sophomore.

The possibilities for long-legged high jumpers go way up.

And Bay sure went “way up.”

In her very first meet that sophomore season, she cleared 5-4. Bay was on her way.

“Suddenly, she was a ‘high jumper,’” Gilman says.

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With that, Gilman took his own coaching act up a few notches to try to match her promise. A distance runner himself, Gilman was now pouring himself into studying high-jump technique, sure now that Bay had what it took to be truly “significant” in the event. He knew that athletes like Linda don’t come around often.

Always committed to each of his athletes, Bay said that Gilman never veered from that. But he made sure to find extra time outside of daily team practices for his high-jumping prodigy. Gilman set Sunday afternoons aside during the track-and-field season to provide Bay additional training sessions.

Her thirst for jumping was now becoming unquenchable.

“We’d spend two hours together those Sundays, and Linda would jump nearly all of those two hours,” Gilman says. “I’d finally have to tell her, ‘Rest for 10 to 15 minutes, then start jumping again.’ ”

Before her sophomore track-and-field season was done, Bay was no longer simply recognized in southeastern Minnesota as a high jumping talent. That’s because the 5-4 clearance that she managed to begin the season had turned into 5-8 before it was over, a state record at the time. A few weeks later came her first state championship. Bay took first place with a leap of 5-5.

College coaches took notice. Drake University started taking interest in Bay, as well as bigger universities such as Minnesota and Wisconsin. Recruiting letters now landed in the Barnsess mailbox at a steady pace.

All the while, Gilman, as well as Bay’s parents, kept ramping up their devotion to Bay’s rare skills.

Sharon and Lawrence got Linda signed up for summer track-and-field meets heading into her junior year. She won a meet in Minneapolis, advancing her to a bigger one in Omaha, which she also won. Finally, she brought her act to a national high school meet in the heat and humidity of Louisiana, mom, dad and Linda driving all the way there.

It would represent the one and only time that Bay would fail to finish first in a high-jump competition, from her sophomore year until the close of her senior season at JM. She jumped 5-7. The winner cleared 5-10.

Bay won the state track-and-field meet high jump title for the second straight season as a junior, this time going 5-7. The 5-8 height she’d managed earlier in the season qualified her for some Junior Elite Camp training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, bringing together many of the best high school and college freshmen girls track-and-field athletes in the country.

Gilman accompanied Bay there, the two flying out. Bay stayed for a week, the JM incoming senior living in a dormitory with other female athletic stars.

“That trip was very cool,” Bay says. “I remember walking in (to the training facility) and seeing the Olympic rings. Olympic athletes were there. It was really cool to get a taste of what it would be to be an Olympic athlete. The coaches changed a couple of things for me in my high-jumping technique. They taught me to throw my arms back and reach to the sky when I jumped. They showed me that if I just did this or that, what it could do.”

The senior season. The new coach.

Her final season at JM, Bay’s newfound knowledge was on full display. Gilman, who she was indebted to, was no longer her coach, having left the JM position and replaced by new head coach Craig Sheets.

But likely taking the most prominent role now in lofting her to new heights was a new JM assistant who 10 years before—also then wearing a John Marshall uniform—had reached a height never attained before from a Minnesota jumper.

Rod Raver cleared 7 feet, 1 inch in the 1973 high school state meet. As is also true of Bay, it gave her fellow JM graduate a height that has yet to be broken at the state meet.

Raver striding into his first practice as a JM assistant coach—fresh from his IBM day job—is a memory that remains vivid for Bay.

“He showed up in khaki pants and loafer shoes,” she says. “I remember he jumped 6-2 for me in loafers. It was cool to have him. It was the first time that an actual high jumper had helped me.”

Raver was immediately struck by Bay.

“She was a sweetheart,” says Raver, now 67 and living in Florida. “And when I was coaching her, she was one of the most attentive listeners I’ve ever been around. Any corrections you told her needed to be made, she followed through the very next time she jumped. That had a lot to do with her success.”

Bay’s senior season, everything came together. She led up to the 1986 state meet having cleared 5-10 in consecutive meets, the only times she’d achieved that height.

The last jump

When Bay showed up at state for the last time, at Osseo High School on a hot June day, she’d already built a large reputation. She was the state’s two-time defending high jump champion and an obvious favorite to make it three straight.

But it wasn’t so easy. A fellow senior from Frank B. Kellogg High School (Roseville), Robyn Hackbarth, gave her everything she wanted.

Hackbarth maybe didn’t make Bay sweat, as she rarely stressed during athletic competition. But she certainly got her attention.

Hackbarth did it by clearing 5-8, a personal best. Bay had missed on her first two tries at the height. That left the JM star one more chance to stay alive. On jump No. 3, Bay kept the competition going, arching over 5-8.

The bar was moved up to 5-10. Clear it and Bay not only seemed certain to beat Hackbarth, who’d celebrated in disbelieving fashion after clearing 5-8, but it would establish a state-meet record.

Both girls missed on their first try at 5-10. On attempt number two, Bay was up to the task, clearing it for the third straight meet. Hackbarth followed by sending the bar crashing on her final two attempts.

A few rows up in the Osseo High School stands, there was a mother and father screaming and crying and thrilled. Their daughter, Linda Barsness, had won her third straight state title. Only this time, she’d done it with a Class AA mark that 35 years later, has yet to be broken.

A college volleyball career waiting, Linda Bay would never high jump again.

Pat has been a Post Bulletin sports reporter since 1994. He covers Rochester John Marshall football, as well as a variety of other southeastern Minnesota football teams. Among my other southeastern Minnesota high school beats are girls basketball, boys and girls tennis, boys and girls track and field, high school and American Legion baseball, volleyball, University of Minnesota sports (on occasion) and the Timberwolves (on occasion). Readers can reach Pat at 507-285-7723 or pruff@postbulletin.com.
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