My sporting career seems simple and natural to me, because scores of other young Soviet men and women advance to big-time sport the same way. For me, it began in the Siberian taiga [bush], where I was born on Apr. 14, 1942, in the village of Tolbuzino, east of Lake Baikal. My father was and still is a coal mining engineer, my mother a mine technician. The hungers and privations of war missed us. Perhaps because of this I was able to grow up strong and healthy. I remember running away from the house and wandering about the forests and swamps for hours as a child. My cherished dream then was not to break world records but to have a shotgun of my own; I pictured myself as a hunter.
I have a vivid memory of my first years at school. We had already moved to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on Sakhalin Island. My dad helped me rig up a chinning bar and flying rings in our yard.
Later, in 1952, when the family moved again, this time to Lugansk in the coal and iron region of the Ukraine, I first became acquainted with track and field while attending the fourth grade of public school 17. Sports were popular there, and school meets were held very often. P.T. classes were far from monotonous. As a matter of fact, it was at these classes that I took an interest in high jumping. It seemed the most graceful of all track and field events to me. I suppose even then I thought coal mining was not for me. My older sister became an electrical engineer, a younger brother is studying to be a builder. The youngest in the family, Igor, hasn't decided yet what he wants to do—but I like athletics.
When vacation time came in the summer of 1956, I talked my parents into leaving me in town, instead of sending me out to a Young Pioneer country camp. The biggest track meets took place in the summertime, and that year I met Pyotr Shein, my first coach. He had seen me jumping—I wasn't very good—and invited me to practice at the Vanguard Junior Sports Training School.
Frankly, those first real workouts were a bit disappointing to me. I thought I'd be tackling the bar from the very beginning, but Shein had me practicing gymnastics, weight lifting and cross-country running. It was boring in the beginning, you can believe me, but I grew healthier and stronger and my clearances grew higher.
It was at this time that I first learned about my future rival, John Thomas. I read in Soviet Sport (our sports daily) that Thomas, a 17-year-old schoolboy, had gone over the bar at 6 feet 7�. I was feeling proud of my own achievement—5 feet 8?—and I told myself, "You're not so hot."
Thomas didn't know it, but this was the beginning of our rivalry. Just two days before my 17th birthday I jumped 6 feet 6�, and then at a meet in Moscow on Aug. 13, 1960, I leaped 7 feet 1� to set a new European high. The jump earned me a trip to the Olympic Games in Rome. The experts, however, were unanimous in predicting a victory for Thomas. Nobody had approached his world record of 7 feet 3�.
It was in the Italian capital that Thomas and I met for the first time. I was lying on the grass and reading a book at the Olympic Stadium when I looked up and saw a slender athlete come up to the jump sector. I tossed my book aside, picked up my camera and hurried over to take pictures.
Thomas set the bar, called out the height, "6 feet 11�," and went over with ease. He looked at me, smiled, and flew over the height again. I looked on in wonder, and took one shot of him after another. But it turned out that John underestimated his opponents. Robert Shavlakadze (he now bears the title of merited athlete of the U.S.S.R.) won the gold medal. I equaled his clearance of 7 feet 1 to take the silver medal. Thomas had to be content with bronze.
"An accidental defeat," chorused the foreign observers. We met again several months later, in February 1961, when I was invited to the U.S. for the indoor games. I took part in three meets and placed first in each of them. Thomas took second place all three times. I felt sorry for John. The American press had shifted its tone and unleashed a torrent of abuse against their erstwhile idol. This was unfair, of course. I am most grateful for this rivalry with Thomas, because it helped me so. Keen rivalry gives birth to top results. John is a great friend of mine and an outstanding athlete who has not said his last word in the high jump. His physical build is excellent, and, besides, he is most industrious. In my opinion, John has to polish his style and improve his run-up.