Why OU high jumper Vernon Turner's absence created a buzz — and how he hopes to keep people talking
NORMAN — Vernon Turner has heard all the rumors that floated around about him.
“He went to Florida.”
“He turned pro.”
Every time the high jumper has gone to a meet this season, he has heard another tale about his supposed whereabouts last season. Seems everyone had an idea what happened to Turner after an electric freshman year at OU in 2018. When the Yukon High product went missing in 2019, the rumors started to swirl.
“No one,” he said, “knows exactly what happened.”
So, what did happen?
Where in the world was Vernon Turner?
“I was just here practicing,” he said with a glance around OU’s indoor track.
Less than two weeks away from the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships, Turner is still working to re-establish himself. He did not compete last season, and the story behind his year away is both complicated and convoluted.
It started with a broken promise.
After the NCAA Outdoor Championships in 2018, Turner says he was told his scholarship would be increased to a hundred percent. Turner had set a school record at 7 -feet, 5 ¾ inches during the outdoor season, won the Big 12 title and finished sixth at NCAAs. People were talking about what Turner might do as a Sooner and maybe one day as an Olympian.
But after another meeting with head coach Jim VanHootegem, Turner says he learned he wasn’t going to get the scholarship boost. Turner talked to teammates, who encouraged him to meet again with VanHootegen.
“Then all of a sudden,” Turner remembered, “he had all the money.”
Turner, however, felt like his trust had been violated.
He decided to transfer and landed at Arkansas. The Razorbacks have one of the nation’s best track programs, and after moving to Fayetteville in the summer of 2018, Turner felt good about his decision. He was training, improving, growing.
But then a few weeks before the fall semester started, Turner sprained his left ankle playing pick-up basketball. It was a bad sprain as the outside of his ankle touched the ground.
Turner was sidelined. No training. No jumping.
That gave him a chance to focus on school, and he soon realized he didn't like the direction his academics were heading. He felt he was being pushed away from classes he wanted to take, and being interested in sciences, he didn't feel comfortable with that.
Turner decided to transfer again.
He heard through the grapevine VanHootgen’s days at OU might be limited — VanHootgen eventually did step down — but Turner ultimately opted to return to Norman because he wanted to work again with high jump coach Jerel Langley.
Once Turner got back to OU, they realized his ankle was going to need serious rehabilitation. Turner hadn’t been working much with trainers or coaches as he tried to figure out where to transfer, and it left him in lots of pain when he tried to jump. His left foot is his plant foot, and even though he practiced last year, rehabilitating his ankle has been an ongoing process.
“I’d been hurting for over a year,” he said.
Turner still isn’t pain free but says the pain is much more manageable. He’s gotten to the point where he's focusing again on technique, working again on fundamentals such as when to start his curve on his run up. It seems minor, but when you're launching your body over a bar that's more than a foot higher than your head, every detail is important.
“Just being out of the rhythm of competition has really messed with me,” Turner said. “I don’t know necessarily how it’s going to be once I really get back into it, but it doesn’t feel normal yet.”
Still, Turner cleared 7-3¼ this spring and finished second last weekend at the Big 12 Indoor Championships.
Even though he’s not back on the trajectory he had as a freshman, Turner still has lofty goals. He wants to win championships. Wants to go to the Olympics, too.
Turner acknowledges the past year has been tough. Getting hurt was a bummer. Dealing with pain and getting back into competitive shape has been a struggle. But he has no regrets about his decision to transfer.
Neither the first nor the second time.
“Even outside of track, I feel like it taught me things about myself,” he said.
Now, as for those things he learned about himself at meets this season from people who’d heard rumors? That stuff makes him scratch his head.
“I don’t know where they’re getting their information from,” he said. “It’s still funny hearing some of the stories.”
Vernon Turner was a topic of conversation when he was gone last year, but if all goes as planned, he'll again be creating a buzz for what he does when he jumps.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships
When: March 13-14
Where: Albuquerque, N.M.