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Sunny Margerum Carries on a Three-Generation Track and Field Legacy at Cal

Rashad Sisemore/Staff

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Long jumper Sunny Margerum has some big shoes to fill. Spikes, to be more accurate, and several pairs of them.

Sunny is the newest member of the Margerum-Upshaw family to join the Cal track and field team, extending the streak to three generations.

The man who started it all was Monte Upshaw, Margerum's maternal grandfather. On May 29, 1954, he broke Jesse Owens' national high school record by five inches with a distance of 25-4.25. From there he launched his career with the Bears, setting a then-world record in the sprint medley relay (3:18.8) with Jack Yerman, Willie White and Don Bowden, the first man to break the four-minute mile.

Margerum's aunt Grace Upshaw was next up in line. The newly retired two-time Olympic long jumper competed for Cal from 1995-1997, later claiming four national titles.

"Of course there are really big shoes to fill, but that's not really how I think about it," Margerum says. "There's this quote, 'Pressure is nothing more than the shadow of great opportunity.' That's how I think about it."

Margerum is a freshman who redshirted this indoor season after recovering from a stress fracture she suffered during her senior year of high school. Getting back on track for the upcoming outdoor season should be easier with the kind of support she receives from her family.

Her mom, Joy, and aunt coached her at Gunn High in Palo Alto, Calif., helping her refine her technique. In Margerum's sophomore year, Grace helped her transform from a hang jumper style of long jumping to a hitch kicker, which looks like running in the air. Hitch kicking is generally more effective because it makes better use of the athlete's hang-time.

"She was teaching it to me through sounds - jump and go 'Haiyaa! Knee, knee!'" Margerum says. "I'd be constantly thinking that in my head and that's how I got it. It clicked."

Monte also chimed in with a piece of advice, though it was far less technical than Grace's. In order to help with the landing, he suggested hanging from a pull-up bar and keeping her legs out, holding them for as long as possible.

"That's the one thing he really thinks helped him when he was younger," Margerum recounts. "It's kind of dorky, but that's my family."

Margerum isn't the only one who's gotten help.

Joy helped convince Grace to start competing professionally two years after she graduated from Cal.

"Joy always believed in me and was a huge reason why I got back into track after I finished my collegiate career," Grace said in an interview with the Pacific Association of USA Track and Field. "She always thought I had more to offer and that I never reached my potential in college."

Her professional career included the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, which Monte, Joy, Sunny and her little sister Windy attended.

In the enormous Bird's Nest stadium, Monte managed to make his way all the way down in the stands right next to the long jump pit. He used a paper with Chinese written on it explaining that his daughter was competing in the long jump.

The inter-generational parallels are uncanny; on that memorable day in 1954, Monte's father allegedly held out a handkerchief from the stands to visually mark Jesse Owens' record so Monte knew how far to jump.

Grace's return to long jumping had an even greater effect on Margerum, who was inspired by the Olympic experience.

"The feeling of everybody cheering in the stadium made me really want to do that and drove me to be like her and make it there someday," Margerum says. "I'm not a superstar right now or anything, my family is kind of known as developing athletes, so I know it takes time and I'm not worried."

Grace is proof of that. Although she made it to the Pac-10 Championships her three years at Cal, she didn't break records out of the gate like Monte. It wasn't until after college that she began racking up the awards.

Margerum is in the same boat as Grace as a "developing athlete." As a result, she takes all the necessary steps to keep her edge. Determined to avoid injuries like the stress fracture her senior year, she pounds milk at the same rate other college students pound beers.

"That was probably one of the hardest times of my life," she recalls. "I was ready to dominate my senior year, it was devastating."

Luckily, her acceptance to Cal had already been secured by then. She was given a Stanford backpack for winning the Stanford invite earlier that year, but she got more satisfaction from putting a big X through the logo than she would have had from using it.

Although Margerum was never pressured by her family to be a Bear, a strong Cal tradition was instilled in her from a young age.

While coaching hurdles for the Bears from 1997-2003, Joy sometimes brought Margerum and Windy to practices. Windy was confined to her stroller or baby backpack at the time, but young Sunny was hard at work making sure the team did its stretches correctly.

She knew all the school cheers long before student orientation since she grew up often singing them in the car with her mom on the way to meets and practices.

"Sometimes I get chills when I hear (the band) play," Margerum says. "I'm actually here now, in college."

With her debut for the Bears set for this weekend's Cal Outdoor Opener, Margerum will get her chance to make a splash of sand in the pit named after her grandfather.

"It's called the Upshaw Long Jump Pit," she says. "I better jump far."


Byron Atashian covers track and field. Contact him at [email protected]

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