During the time that Ritter was sitting out sports, the family moved to a house on 10 acres near Red Oak, Texas (pop. 1,882), about 20 miles south of Dallas. "We had cows," Ritter says. "I grew up country. I'll always be more chicken-fried steak than sushi."
She was allowed no sports until she was 13. Then she played junior high basketball and later added track at Red Oak High. That reunited her with her old flame. "I was born to be a high jumper," says Ritter. "We fit, the event and I. It's perfect for my body and my personality. It's mine."
And she's its. "The obstacle is the thing," she says, having explained this a thousand times and feeling she has never gotten it just right. "The bar is the answer to the question of whether you are successful. It's always there. If you make it, it goes up. The challenge is constant, and that's what I want."
She found immediate success. Jumping straddle-style, she won the Texas high school Class 2A meet as a freshman. And winning provided her with a nice, comfortable sense of who she was. "I wasn't a real confident child," she says. "I was gangly and shy. Here was something I did better than anyone else. It made me...tingle inside. I'm still not what you'd call a wildly confident person. But hitching myself to jumping helped in a lot of ways."
She became a stronger student and began to pursue a serious sporting life. "Her sisters learned how to flirt, how to talk to the guys," says Dorothy Ritter. "Louise never learned that. She didn't worry about frilly stuff. And let's face it, as good as she was at basketball and high jumping, guys then didn't ask girls like that out."
"I guess I haven't let what women are 'supposed' to do, marry and have babies, get to me," says Ritter, who was not (and is not) averse to marrying and having babies. She just wanted to chase after track's circus first. "I tried not to let anyone direct my life if they weren't me."
At Texas Woman's University, in Denton, she remembers herself as an inquiring soul. "I needed a coach who could let me in on the sense of things," says Ritter. "I was always asking. 'Why am I doing this?' " Her coach, Dr. Bert Lyle, was a fountain of answers. He switched her to the Fosbury flop, and she won the AIAW championship in 1977 at 6'1½".
The change in technique was crucial for Ritter. The straddle calls for a raw. muscular spring. The flop is a better way of harnessing horizontal running speed and giving it nowhere to go but up. "I'm not explosive off the ground." says Ritter. "My skill is transferring speed into lift."
The lift sends her soaring. She easily dunks volleyballs in training. "At TWU my roommate won $10 bets on whether I could dunk," she says, "but word got around."
She would do the same with a basketball, but her hands are too small for her to palm it. "I tried it once," she says ruefully. "I needed another inch. The ball slipped away, and I got rejected from the rim and slammed down on my back. I'm 5'10", so it bugs me that 6'2", 6'3" women can't dunk."