2017-04-20 / Sports

‘A poor man’s Robocop’

Calabasas long jumper returns better than ever from major injury
TRACK & FIELD /// Calabasas Coyotes
Jonathan Andrade
@J_ Andrade_ on Twitter

PALMER’S PIT—Calabasas High junior Palmer Naftal, a long jump specialist for the boys’ track and field team, established a personal record of 21 feet, 1 inch in the event on March 23 against Westlake. 
RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers PALMER’S PIT—Calabasas High junior Palmer Naftal, a long jump specialist for the boys’ track and field team, established a personal record of 21 feet, 1 inch in the event on March 23 against Westlake. RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers Palmer Naftal’s nagging lower back pain became excruciating.

Naftal, now a Calabasas High junior, couldn’t even muster the willpower to walk himself back to the team bus after last year’s Ventura County Track and Field Championships at Moorpark.

“The pain was unbearable,” he said. “It was so bad.”

While Naftal managed to limp his way from the jumping pit up to his team’s canopy in the stands, Calabasas teammate Scott Stever, now a senior high jumper, had to give Naftal a piggyback ride the rest of the way.

Naftal underwent a CAT scan at the hospital after the county meet.

Five months after the aches began in February 2016, Naftal learned his L5 vertebra was broken in two places.

“The doctor had two theories,” Naftal said. “It could have either been when I was a kid, then the stress levels increased until it broke. Or I could have had a stress fracture very recently, and it broke from jumping.”

It’s amazing the 17-year-old was able to put up with the agony for so long.

Naftal jokes that he would use the Kylo Ren method of punching the pain away when his back bothered him after jumps, but he had no clue it was such a serious injury.

The junior can look back and smile about it now, but his recovery was painful and uncomfortable.

Naftal had to wear a leg cuff for four months and a body cast around his torso for six months. The two braces, which connected to form one giant brace, helped ease the pain. The cumbersome hardware was too uncomfortable to sleep in, however.

“I called myself a poor man’s Robocop,” he said. “For a few months I was embarrassed to go out in public because I’d never worn anything like it.”

For 11 months, Naftal, who learned to play harmonica in his free time, couldn’t compete in the sport he’d fallen in love with as a seventh-grader on the Calabasas Cheetahs youth club. He also couldn’t partake in regular summer activities, like jumping on the trampolines at Sky High Sports or shooting for par at miniature golf with friends.

He’s nearly back at full strength, but he said he feels a pinch every now and then.

“I don’t even think it’s completely healed,” he said. “I think it’s still broken.”

That’s not what he told his coaches when he begged to return to competition on March 23 against Westlake at home.

Head coach Reed Vertelney said he was concerned.

“He really wanted to jump in that meet,” the coach said of Naftal. “I don’t think any of us had expectations for him. I really think we were all hoping he wouldn’t hurt himself. That was the first goal.”

Naftal leaped a personal best 21 feet, 1 inch in his third attempt back in the pit, which teammates have dubbed “Palmer’s Pit” for his ability to rake the sand better than anyone.

Naftal said he was happy with the personal record but more bummed that he launched from more than a foot behind the takeoff board.

“I was mad at myself,” he said of missing an even better mark.

The Coyote is hard on himself because he’s confident he can do better.

Calabasas teammate Aliyah Woodall, a senior triple jumper, said she understands his harsh self-criticism.

“He has a lot of drive,” Woodall said of Naftal. “He knows how to compete and he knows what he wants. That’s something not a lot of athletes have.”

Woodall said her teammate could leap 23 feet before the season ends.

“He has more bounce than anybody I’ve ever seen,” she said.

Naftal, the son of Russell and Michele Naftal, said he wants to surpass 25 feet before his prep career is over.

He’s among the top 10 jumpers in Ventura County so far this year, and he’s hoping to snag a league title before making a postseason run.

Palmer Naftal, the older brother of Calabasas freshman Charlotte Naftal, said he wants to become a psychologist or child therapist after high school.

He’s considering Arizona, Oregon, Syracuse and Denison University in Granville, Ohio, as college choices.

Until then, he’s hoping to continue to catapult himself to new personal records in the long jump.

“I hope to over-exceed my expectations,” he said.


Calabasas continues battling against Marmonte League foes this season.

“We’ve come from not being competitive to a competitive team,” head coach Reed Vertelney said.

Seniors Jack Martin, an 800- and 1,600-meter runner who will join Cal Lutheran next year, and Jeremiah Brown, a 200, 400 and 800 runner, lead the boys’ team. Junior Reggie Hughes, a standout football player, competes in the 400 and 4x400 relay.

“Our girls are focused on getting to state finals,” Vertleney said. “We’ll be stronger this year.”

Tierra Crockrell, De’Anna Nowling, Kyla Robinson-Hubbard and Janiah Brown, sophomores who combined to take 4x400 relay silver at the CIF State Track and Field Championships as freshmen, power the Coyotes.

Crockrell’s competing in the 100 hurdles, high jump and long jump this spring. Nowling dominates the 100, 200 and 400. Robinson-Hubbard sprints the 100 and 200, and she battles in the 300 hurdles. Brown competes in the 200, 400, 800 and 1,600.

Kennedy Waite, a sophomore sprinter and high jumper, and Carla Antypas, a freshman who runs the 200 and 400, are talented Coyotes.

Aliyah Woodall, a senior, is a standout long jumper and triple jumper who’s received nearly 20 recruiting letters from colleges.

“She’s exceptional,” the coach said of Woodall.

Email Jonathan Andrade at jandrade@theacorn.com.

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