One night two summers ago Jerome Carter and his buddies snuck into the pool of an exclusive housing complex in Edgewood, Md. for a midnight swim. The others settled for a quick dip and left, but Carter dallied to work on his backstroke. It was only after a bright light shone in his eyes and a gruff voice shouted, "Hold it!" that Carter realized his predicament. He sprang out of the water and bounded off a chaise longue, clearing the top of an eight-foot barbed-wire fence by inches. The man with the flashlight watched incredulously.
Which is about how the track establishment has reacted to Carter, a student at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Md. these last couple of months. He had nowhere to go but up when in December he began high-jumping on the indoor track circuit. He was just 19 and had been out of the sport for a year and a half after breaking his right ankle at a high school track meet. After that mishap Carter had figured he'd never jump again. "I just no longer even thought about jumping," he says, and who could argue with an athlete who has two steel pins in his ankle?
But he changed his mind, and at his very first meet, the Towson (Md.) State Invitational on Dec. 18, the 6'1" Carter equaled his personal best of 6'11", even though he was competing in a borrowed pair of running shoes two sizes too small. Two weeks later at the Towson Holiday Relays, he leaped 7'4", an extraordinary achievement, considering he was wearing those same borrowed shoes. Two weeks after that, at a meet in Fairfax, Va., finally wearing regulation high jump shoes, he cleared 7'7", equaling the third-best indoor jump ever by an American and falling a scant 1� inches shy of the world record of the Soviet Union's Vladimir Yashchenko. And observers say Carter made his 7'7" with three inches to spare.
Understandably, Carter had doubters at first. But when word got out that he had barely missed 7'11" during practice in a cramped Harford Community auxiliary gym, where he was limited to less than half his normal approach run, track and field folk began to understand what a phenomenon he is. "Pure, raw talent," says Bob Hersh, TAC records chairman. "Untamed and unsmoothed."
Carter disarmed remaining skeptics by jumping 7'4�" to finish second at last month's Millrose Games, and now he's being talked about as a possible gold medalist next summer at the Los Angeles Olympics. "Everyone wants to know, who is he?" says his coach, Alan Dean. "How old is he? Where does he come from? Is he really an American?"
For the record, Carter is an American, an Army brat born on a U.S. military base in Augsburg, Germany to an NCO and a former high school sprinter. When he was nine, he set up his first crossbar, a broomstick with a pair of crutches as standards, in front of a pile of mattresses in his backyard. He had been jumping around a lot in other ways, too: The family returned to the U.S. when Jerome was six, living in Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey and Maryland; he has called eight different towns home. After the last move his parents divorced, and since 1978 Jerome and his three brothers have lived with their mother in Edgewood.
Carter was a Class-C state champion high jumper (6'4") as a junior at Harford Vocational Technical High. Dean was his coach there, too, and in Carter's senior year he broke the state high school record by two inches with a jump of 6'10" before fracturing his ankle. Fortunately, it wasn't his left, or takeoff, foot, but he spent eight weeks in casts. After the last was chipped away, Carter leaped 6'11" to win the East Coast Invitational. He awaited the call of higher education. New Mexico State obliged.
But the pain in his ankle persisted. X rays showed the break had never healed. Pins were inserted by a doctor in New Mexico, and, discouraged and homesick, Carter returned home after one semester, taking a job in a printing shop. "I was tired of school, tired of everything," he says. "I wanted to make money and buy clothes and things."
Then last summer, during a pickup basketball game with his brothers, Carter's head nearly grazed the rim as he went up for a dunk. "It flipped me out," he says. "I realized I still had something." He called on Dean, who was coaching at Harford Community. Dean encouraged him to enroll and resume jumping.
Carter's a reedy kid who seems to live in a blue track suit and white painter's cap, and is remarkably composed for his age. "I'm confident about what Jerome can do," says Carter, speaking of himself in the third person. "The only thing that upsets me is when Jerome doesn't do it. I'm as serious as a heart attack."