It was the medieval age of high jumping, just 10 years ago in track and field circles.
Any athlete with enough gall to jump over a bar that looked as high as the Tower of London would be sensible in technique, accept the coach’s advice and leap chest-first in traditional fashion.
Then along came Dick Fosbury, the lanky kid from Medford, Oregon.
He kept saying he was too uncoordinated to high jump in the chest-first or forward style. Instead, Dick developed a backward flop that gave his coach fits.
It became known as the “Fosbury Flop,” a real Magna Carta of high jumping in the changes it produced.
Fosbury took his flop from Medford to Oregon State University and somehow convinced his coaches and other skeptics that the only way he could make the track team’s traveling squad was not forward, but backward.
“No one else would try it,” Fosbury now says. “They thought it was crazy.”
Crazy looking it was, but it was just crazy enough to get Fosbury a ticket to Mexico City in 1968. There, he flopped backwards just well enough to climb the winners’ platform and accept for his country the Olympic gold medal in high jumping.
His success so influenced high jump technique that, while Fosbury was the only jumper to flop at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, half of the Olympic jumpers flopped in 1972 at Munich, and about 75% of the high jumpers used the Fosbury technique at Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1976.
Don’t look for Fosbury on any Lite Beer commercials, however, although Dick says he did do a beer commercial for the 1976 Olympics and even taught “Tonight Snow” host Johnny Carson the Fosbury Flop after his unexpected 1968 victory.
Rather, easy-going Dick Fosbury still likes exercise and the outdoors, which was part of the reason he settled in Ketchum this past summer.
Dick’s story should be an inspiration to any young athlete who thinks that his or her coach is operating on a strange wavelength.
Fosbury grew up like many kids—playing football, basketball and running track. He generally used the conventional methods of avoiding tackles, grabbing rebounds and trying to clear the high hurdles.
But when it came to high jumping, Fosbury was in a quandary, despite his height and lanky frame. He couldn’t do the straddle, or belly roll, with any consistent success.
The young athlete did want to make the team, so Dick practiced a scissors method where he would try to clear the bar in a sitting posture.
With the scissors, he went 5 feet and 4 inches. The straddle method only gave him a 5-0 jump. As the bar got higher, his sitting posture flattened out to a point where Dick back first cleared the bar.
His landing in the sand pile remained similar to straddle jumpers—right on his rear end. “You’ll never get anywhere using that style, he told me,” said Dick, about his coach.
Fosbury unsuccessfully kept trying the conventional straddle method but improved to a 5-10 jump using the scissors, or flop. His coach finally gave up preaching the straddle and Fosbury gained strength and success with his backward soar.
In his senior year in high school, Dick earned a second place high jump finish at the state competition, then went to Houston, Texas for a National Junior Championship meet.
He was understandably nervous, but Dick had an inkling of his future successes when he handled the competitive pressure and won the high jump with a 6-7 jump at Houston, clearly a personal record at that time.
Next, it was on to Corvallis, Oregon, where Fosbury took up engineering studies and high jumping at Oregon State University.
His coach Bernie Wagner was well acquainted with Fosbury’s unusual style, but he stubbornly tried to convert his freshman protégé back to the straddle method. Looking back, that strategy seems as far-fetched as a baseball batting coach teaching Rod Carew how to better hit a pitch.
For an impressionable kid like Fosbury just starting his college career, it meant “back to the drawing board.” So Dick worked on the straddle all his freshman year. “But my progress got worse,” he says.
Dick compromised with coach Wagner during his freshman spring term, practicing the straddle all week but switching to the flop for weekend track competitions. He managed “a consistent, but not outstanding year,” he recalls, topping his efforts with a 6-6 jump.
It wasn’t until Fosbury’s sophomore year at OSU that coach Wagner became a believer in the Fosbury Flop. Dick qualified for the travel team when OSU’s squad went to Fresno State in California for a meet.
Fosbury says, “It was great weather and I was feeling good.” The result was a 6-10 Fosbury flopper, for a new Oregon State men’s record. Wagner congratulated his star by saying, “Fella, you are on your own.”
Dick embarked on an intensified physical conditioning program, concentrating on strength. It paid off physically, and Dick took care of the mental part of high jumping.
“Like anything else, what you need in high jumping is a positive attitude," he says. "In warming up, you concentrate by forming an image of yourself, going over that bar again and again. Timing is essential, and that comes from practice. But when you’re running toward the bar in your approach, it’s a positive attitude that gets you over.”
Fosbury’s junior year was memorable. He crept closer to the 7-6 world record by clearing 7-0 on a regular basis. Around the indoor and outdoor track meet circuit, his reputation bloomed as that crazy jumper from Oregon.
Dick won the NCAA indoor title at Detroit with a 7-0 jump. Then, a 7-2.25 jump at Berkeley, Ca. won for Fosbury the NCAA outdoor crown in the event, and also earned him an invitation to compete in the first Olympic Trials at Los Angeles, California.
Fosbury understood that the Olympic Trials winner in the high jump would be guaranteed an Olympic berth. He rode his momentum to a winning jump of 7-1. But he had a surprise waiting.
Under pressure of an athletic boycott, the Olympic Committee changed the qualifying rules so that Fosbury had to jump once again for a ticket to the Mexico City Games. The change shocked Fosbury. “Back to the drawing board again,” he says.
The pressure increased in the subsequent qualifying round when Fosbury missed his first two tries at 7-2. Going to the Olympics came down to one more jump for our hero.
And Fosbury didn’t flop, as in choke. Instead, he flopped, as in Fosbury, by clearing the bar on his first attempt at 7-3, another personal record that qualified him for a trip to Mexico City in 1968.
The week of the Olympic finals, coach Wagner played Jimmy the Greek by predicting a Fosbury win. It wasn’t a blind prediction.
Fosbury says about Wagner, “He knew I was clearing the bar by several inches in practice, and he also knew that I always seemed to jump the best in a big competition.”
So determined and intense, Fosbury says he was tough to beat. He jumped 7-4.25 for the gold medal, which he proudly brought back to a Homecoming parade in Medford.
Was he confident he would win?
“No, I was never confident until I was in the pit. I knew there were too many things that could go wrong,” he says.
Afterwards, the Olympic hero rode the fanfare wave as the fame of the Fosbury Flop spread nationwide.
He has a theory on what became a phenomenon in high jumping.
“We are into instant success in this country, so the flop just caught on," Fosbury says. "Television focused on it and young athletes imitated it. The straddle jump requires more discipline, so you’ll find Europeans doing it more, even though it takes years to develop. Basically, the flop is easy to do.”
Although Fosbury’s royalties from the developing the success of the Fosbury Flop are primarily spiritual, he speaks with pride when discussing the complete reversal in popularity, from the straddle jump to the Fosbury Flop, within 10 years.
Fosbury took a fling at the short-lived professional track tour in 1973. Otherwise, he settled back into everyday life, keeping an exercise regimen and developing an engineering career.
He lived in the track and field hotbed of Eugene, Oregon. before arriving in Ketchum six months ago. He works for engineer John Jacoby and eventually wants to get a land surveying license.
Fosbury occasionally operates instruction clinics for youngsters who want to be high jumpers. But he mainly prides himself on a point none of his coaches will argue.
The lanky kid from Medford showed them all that there is more than one way to high jump. And the sport will never be the same.
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