After 15 years of fantasizing, Louise Ritter had her moment of ecstasy on Sept. 30, 1988. It arrived with a rush. Ritter was not favored to win the Olympic women's high jump. Bulgaria's Stefka Kostadinova held the world record of 6'10¼", more than a two-inch cushion over Ritter's American record of 6'8". What's more, the 23-year-old Kostadinova had easily beaten the 30-year-old, often-injured Ritter at the 1987 World Championships.
"If I were a betting person, I'd have put every cent I had on Kostadinova," says Ritter. "She's the best I've ever seen." So the excitement seemed to flow primarily from Kostadinova's slim but delicious chance at becoming the first woman to clear seven feet.
In Seoul on Sept. 30, Kostadinova and Ritter arched over the early heights with brisk efficiency. By the time the pink-and-green bar was placed at 6'8", they were the only competitors left and. having no misses, were tied for first place. With at least a silver guaranteed. Ritter had acquitted herself superbly. "I relaxed a bit then," she says. "It was easy to go all-or-nothing after I'd medaled."
But Ritter, taking off too close to the bar, missed all three tries at 6'8". So, astoundingly, did Kostadinova, who repeatedly had the height but came down on the bar.
They went to a jump-off. Each would be given one more try at 6'8". If neither made it, the bar would be lowered, two centimeters at a time, until one of the women cleared it.
Kostadinova was up first. Again she missed. Ritter thought. "If I don't do it now, I might not ever get another chance."
She moved back 12 inches for her takeoff. "I stand until I get the feeling that it's right," she says. "I try not to think of anything except doing my turn well. My subconscious does better at this than my conscious."
Ritter stood for no more than 10 seconds, took two walking steps, a little hop and 11 running steps while curling in toward the bar from the right. Then she planted her left foot and leaped.
"My dreams and my jumping go hand in hand," she would say. "When I let myself go, there's a split second between takeoff and landing when I can't tell you what I feel. I can't tell you what I dream. It's connected. People have asked me what my thoughts were when I jumped in Seoul. I don't know what they were." She was way up high, a dream, above memory, above language.
Above the bar. Her right thigh caressed it, then slipped over, leaving it vibrant but in place.