Much of this hamlet can be surveyed in a 5-minute drive down Main Street, where the glimpses include the J.C. Penney Museum, honoring the native son, and a mural history of a rural village now inhabited by 1,809 people over 1.41 square miles.
The simple, remote scene about 60 miles northeast of Kansas City seems an improbable wellspring for athletic achievements — though Penney High football won state titles in 2009 (Class 1) and 2010 (Class 2) and the school has had an even more prosperous recent history in track and field and cross country.
But it’s the antiquated gravel track and absence of field amenities at Penney High that on the surface make baffling what blossomed from here on June 7 in Eugene, Ore.
Lindsay Vollmer, a sophomore at Kansas whose hometown training hinged on what she playfully called “strange stuff,” won the NCAA heptathlon and helped stake the Jayhawks to the first women’s national title in school history.
“ ‘This isn’t real life,’ ” Vollmer thought after she won by taming her long-time nemesis, the 800-meter run, for her stunning sixth personal-best among the seven events over two days.
But real life it was. And at a time when gaudy facilities are the rage at every level of athletics, at a time it’s easy to be cynical about the mission of college sports, Vollmer is a refreshing reminder of what can still take place beyond the excesses and disillusionment.
“Everyone (at KU) kind of knows I’m a small-town girl, but I don’t think you can quite understand until you see it,” said Vollmer, who was valedictorian of her approximately 50-member class. “But I love all the old-school stuff.”
Though her talents have been honed at Kansas, they were nurtured on improvisations largely orchestrated by her father, Mark, who coached along with his wife, Missy, at Penney for 25 years and, like her, still teaches there.
If Mark’s training methods weren’t quite like Rocky Balboa pounding slabs of meat, Kansas multi-events coach Wayne Pate said, laughing, they still were plenty imaginative.
“I guarantee if we bring (large-school) coaches here and look at what we have, they’re going to go, ‘I don’t want to deal with that,’ ” Mark Vollmer said last week, on the track now being overrun by grass. “But you just make do.”
Like setting up long-jump practice off a springboard from a stage into mats on the floor of a claustrophobia-inducing old gym that barely extends beyond the basketball court lines, a gym where he drilled holes in the floor to accommodate a removable shot-put toe board.
“I got in trouble at first; the (physical education teacher) was furious and thought (children) would stick their fingers in the holes and get stuck,” he said, noting no one ever did but allowing as how a backboard once was shattered by a bouncing rubberized shot from one of his male athletes.
Making do, like the school getting weights from a prison auction and using track sweat-suits that bear the No. 92 for the year they were purchased.
“But the kids never question that,” he said.
Making do, by rigging or manipulating many other makeshift pieces of equipment, a la MacGyver.
And by often driving 30 miles round-trip to Cameron, where on summer nights Mark and Lindsay would pass hurdles to each other over a barbed-wire fence so they could practice on a rubber track.
“If you really want to do it, you have to give a little,” Lindsay said. “Obviously, nothing’s ever going to be perfect, but you can still put in the effort.”
And you can still get the result.
Considering the winner of the Olympic heptathlon has come to be known as the world’s best female athlete, it can be said that Vollmer now is the reigning top collegiate female athlete.
But that notion makes Pate uncomfortable.
“Unless you’re scoring Jackie Joyner-Kersee-type points,” he said, laughing.
The two-time Olympic heptathlon gold medalist, whose autographed picture to Lindsay sits on the Vollmer’s mantel, was on another tier from Vollmer’s 6,086-point effort. Joyner-Kersee scored a world-record 7,291 points in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
“But at least at this moment,” Mark Vollmer said, also taking a cautious route, “she’s one of the best heptathletes in the United States.”
For all the surprise in that, it also has a natural basis. Her parents met at a Nebraska high school district track meet, Missy said, when Mark kindly held her blocks for a sprint. They really got to know each other on long track bus rides at Wayne State, where each starred.
“Track’s been a big part of our lives,” Mark Vollmer said.
So much so that as Lindsay’s potential became evident, trumping even her considerable basketball skills, family vacations with her parents and sister became enmeshed with travel for regional and national meets. That’s how much of the 195,000 miles on their Ford Windstar were amassed.
The Windstar won’t be making the trip to Des Moines, Iowa, where U.S. national competition begins Wednesday. Drained by Eugene, where she said a relaxed mind-set was key to topping her previous best by 442 points, Vollmer is stepping back to resume training.
But even if Vollmer prefers to be in the moment, her emergence in Oregon suggests she is a 2016 Olympic prospect.
“And with her solid foundation,” Pate said, “the mind can do wonderful things.”
Even if — or is it because? — the foundation was non-traditional.