It was a sharp blow, one likely to damage the fragile psyche of a high school girl. When it came, Joetta Clark, a 17-year-old from South Orange, N.J., was doing an easy jog around Madison Square Garden's banked wooden track, warming down from her 800-meter victory over Jan Merrill and Madeline Manning, her onetime idols, in January's Olympic Invitational meet. Sprinter Mike Roberson stepped onto the track and stopped her. "Jo, did you hear?" he said. "You've been disqualified."
"Stop joking," said Clark, but then two other runners came over and confirmed Roberson's report. Clark had been convicted of straying in front of Merrill in the homestretch—"impeding her progress," the judges said. "I was upset," says Clark. "I was the defending champion, and we were on national TV. But I didn't really show it or anything. That never does any good."
Not showing it when it hurts is typical of Clark. "Joetta's a remarkable young lady," says Manning, a three-time Olympian, who won a gold medal in the 800 at Mexico City and in 1972 set a world record of 2:02 in the 880. "She's far too mature for a high school girl, not silly and giggly like most, and she's a genuinely nice person. She can handle whatever's thrown at her."
It's been that way for a while. At age 11, after four years of classes at a dance studio in nearby Newark, Clark and her friend Natalie Butler auditioned for, and were accepted by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center in Manhattan. "We don't usually accept them that young," says Robert Christopher, their ballet instructor. "Those two were very serious—hard workers, exceptionaly well-mannered and mature. They were graceful enough not to stick out like little girls among adults."
Every Saturday morning for four years the girls commuted to 45th Street and Broadway in Manhattan to take six hours of classes in ballet, modern and modern-jazz dance from Christopher and Ailey himself. "At the time, the most exciting thing was getting to ride the subways by ourselves," Clark says. "That was a thrill, though to this day I can't tell you how to get to the Dance Center when you get above ground." In her classes she made rapid progress. "I performed at Symphony Hall in Newark," she says, "and I had gotten on toe in ballet. But then Natalie and I got too far advanced and had to start coming to the Center on weekdays. That's when the dancing began to interfere with my track. That's when I stopped."
It takes more than self-confidence and inner direction to toss away a promising dance career, not to mention the opportunity to work with an Alvin Ailey. Clark, however, has never been indecisive. As a freshman at Columbia High in Maple-wood, N.J., she was also an aspiring pianist, in her seventh year of lessons ("Bach, Chopin, all that"), but she decided to play only for her own enjoyment. She is on the honor roll at Columbia, and she scored in the 92nd percentile on her SATs. In track she is off the charts.
"Joetta was an outstanding prospect by the time she arrived here," says Len Klepack, her coach at Columbia. "She had done a 5:09 mile and 2:21 half in eighth grade, and she could sprint." Clark's father, Joe, an elementary school principal, had started her running when she was nine. In her very first race, a Newark Parks Commission 60-yard dash, she won easily. "My sprint career didn't last too long, though," she says. "I could do a 12.1 hundred when I was 12, but that wasn't good enough to ensure that I'd win all the time. By moving up to the half and the mile, I could win all the time. That's what I wanted."
So, as a freshman, with track offering more exhilaration, Clark left ballet behind. "Natalie's in the advanced dance company now, and I'd probably be with her if I hadn't stopped," Clark says matter-of-factly. "It was my own choice. What Natalie does is more of a group thing, while I like the independence of running. Ballet is like a cage—you're held tightly within it. I want to seek adventure."
The talk of adventure implies a daring that is not readily apparent in Joetta Clark. Her face is long and serious, her eyes tranquil. She speaks with a confidence that falls far short of bravado and a restraint that occasionally frustrates, as when she starts an anecdote—a funny thing that happened on the way to somewhere—then comes up too shy, hesitant to pull the trigger. It's as though she doesn't want to cause a stir.
Her physical maturity speaks for itself. There is a straightness of spine and elegance of stride that reflects her dance training. At 5'8" and 120 pounds, she might otherwise be all elbows and knees, just another rawboned teen-ager.