With his left knee throbbing and a panic attack setting in, a thought crept into Ben Milligan’s mind as he rolled off the back of the high jump mat and crumpled to the floor last January in Seattle.
“Wish I hadn’t done that,” he recalled with a smile during a recent interview.
An ill-advised attempt to clear a 6-foot, 10-inch bar with a scissor kick during a pre-meet workout at the 2019 season-opening UW Preview indoor track and field meet decimated Milligan’s knee — torn anterior cruciate ligament, torn medial collateral ligament, torn meniscus — and ended his senior season at Oregon before it even started.
Now more than a year later, Milligan views his injury in a different light.
Back after taking a redshirt year, the 6-foot-3 Milligan is jumping higher than any Duck has in decades and heads into this weekend’s Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championship meet at Dempsey Indoor in Seattle in position to make the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championship meet for the first time in his career.
“It’s weird to say, but I’m happy that the injury happened because there was so much growth that happened this past year,” Milligan said. “It sucked for maybe three months but past April it was smooth sailing and I grew so much. I needed it personally.”
Milligan’s first meet since his injury was back at the UW Preview on Jan. 18 when he cleared 6-10 3/4. He followed that with a 7-1 clearance on Jan. 31 at the Razorback Invitational in Arkansas, and then jumped a personal-record 7-3 1/4 on Feb. 14 at the Don Kirby Invitational in New Mexico.
That jump is the second-best indoor mark in program history, topped only by Chris Nelson’s school record of 7-4 1/2 from 1996, the year before Milligan was born.
“It’s been a blast,” Milligan said of his season so far. “I think that whole year of rehabbing made me appreciate being able to compete again. It’s been a breath of fresh air.”
Milligan was a prep sensation during his time at Sherwood High School, winning the 2015 Class 6A state title as a senior. That same year he cleared 7-1 1/2 to move into third all-time in Oregon high school history.
The summer before his freshman year at Oregon, he placed third at the U.S. Junior Championships with a jump of 7-2 1/4.
However, his first two seasons at Oregon were met with inconsistency and he didn’t PR again as a freshman or sophomore.
So disappointed with how his track career was going, the former high school basketball standout went to an open tryout for the Oregon men’s team in the fall of 2017.
“I just went out there and had some fun,” he said “Basketball’s always been my first love. Also, at that point, track wasn’t going well so I wanted to find something new. It was frustrating. I could only jump 6-6. I mean, I would go play basketball and could dunk, so I could jump, it just wouldn’t translate to the high jump. I was struggling.”
Then came a coaching change, as assistant Jamie Cook departed for the head job at Navy and Seth Henson was hired as his replacement.
Milligan credits Henson with refining his technique through more individual attention as well as a more collaborative approach.
“He helped take me from being an athlete to being a high jumper,” Milligan said.
Milligan got back on track as a junior and his best season as a collegian followed. He set his first PR in almost three years when he cleared 7-2 1/2 at the 2018 OSU High performance meet, then finished second at the Pac-12 championships and qualified for his first NCAA championship meet. He also competed at the U.S. Outdoor Track & Field Championships that summer.
He was feeling as strong and confident as ever heading into his senior season, then the injury happened as his left leg hit the mat following his scissor-kick clearance.
“The Washington State guys were there and they were doing some scissors and then they moved the bar up to 6-10 to jump, and I was like ‘Alright, watch this,’” Milligan said.
He had surgery on Jan. 24, 2019 and was told a full recovery could take up to a year. He was ready to go after seven months, and credits Oregon trainer Vanessa Gomez with keeping him on track and motivated.
“Vanessa is a phenomenal trainer,” he said. “And not just in telling me what to do, but in keeping me focused. When you’re out for that long you struggle mentally, but she knew how to get me back into it and keep working hard.”
Milligan’s success so far this winter is just the beginning he said, as he eyes Nelson’s school indoor record before embarking on his final outdoor season. Jason Boness holds the Oregon outdoor record at 7-6 set in 2000.
“It just speaks volumes about his mindset and his mentality,” Oregon coach Robert Johnson said. “To see him having the success that he’s having with coach Henson guiding behind the scenes there, I think is fantastic. Ben is good dude and deserves everything that he’s getting.”
What Milligan needs this weekend is to secure his spot in the NCAA Indoor meet.
He is tied for 14th in the NCAA but could miss out on making the March 13-14 NCAA Indoor field due to a tiebreaker. Only the top-16 individuals go to nationals and the five-way tie for 14th that Milligan is a part of brings the total to 18 jumpers.
Johnson also said the Ducks are hoping to add heptahlete Max Vollmer to their list of NCAA qualifiers this weekend, as well as the women’s distance medley relay team, which is ranked 20th.
Oregon’s top men’s distance and middle distance runners will not be at he MPSF meet. Instead, they’re in Boston at the two-day BU Last Chance Invitational, which began on Thursday.
Follow Chris Hansen on Twitter @chansen_RG or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Oregon sports coverage, visit DuckSports.com.