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The Revolutionary
RICHARD HOFFER
September 14, 2009
AS A GAWKY TEENAGER IN THE 1960S, DICK FOSBURY JUST WANTED TO FIND SOMETHING HE WAS REALLY GOOD AT. LITTLE DID HE KNOW HE WOULD BECOME AN OLYMPIC CHAMPION AND TURN A SPORT LITERALLY UPSIDE DOWN
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September 14, 2009

The Revolutionary

AS A GAWKY TEENAGER IN THE 1960S, DICK FOSBURY JUST WANTED TO FIND SOMETHING HE WAS REALLY GOOD AT. LITTLE DID HE KNOW HE WOULD BECOME AN OLYMPIC CHAMPION AND TURN A SPORT LITERALLY UPSIDE DOWN

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As to why nobody had come across this before, well, somebody had. In 1959 Bruce Quande, a kid at Flathead County (Mont.) High, had started with the Scissors and had gradually rolled it over. Just like Fosbury. But Quande was not driven the way Fosbury was—the best part of being on the track team for him was stopping for ice cream on the trip back from meets—and he never made much of it. Nobody did.

There was good reason for that. Completing the Flop successfully was only half the battle; the return to earth still had to be negotiated. Few would even consider such an experiment in flight knowing they'd have to land on their necks. During Fosbury's sophomore year, the landing pit was only a pile of wood chips and sawdust. It was safe but not comfortable. By his junior year, though, his school had installed a foam pit, and the idea of a head plant, while still daunting, was a bit more palatable.

Still, even with a jump named after him, Fosbury was mostly unknown and mostly unwanted. Even after finishing second at the state meet in his senior year, college coaches were not calling. It wasn't discrimination, just performance. Not until the summer after graduation, when Fosbury won the national junior championship with a jump of 6'7", did he get the first call. Berny Wagner, the new coach at Oregon State, took a chance on Fosbury and got him a small scholarship. That was all Fosbury was looking for anyway, an education, a chance at an engineering career. If the Flop could help get him a degree, it would have done its job.

Wagner knew Fosbury had jumped 6'7"; he just didn't know how. The coach wasn't hidebound, but he wasn't going to encourage something as crazy as the Flop. Let's get back to the Straddle, Wagner said. "You're the coach," Fosbury said. "You line out a program, and I'll follow it." But the Straddle didn't work for him in college any more than it had in high school, and he regressed. Wagner had taken a 6'7" jumper and turned him into a 5'6" stumbler.

So Fosbury began flopping in meets. It was strictly a face-saving maneuver. What did Wagner care, anyway? He had since acquired a couple of bona fide Straddle jumpers, and his investment in Fosbury was small enough not to trouble him further. But finally something happened. In the spring of Fosbury's sophomore season, Wagner took him to a three-way meet in Fresno. Using the Flop, Fosbury jumped 6'10", not only an increase of three inches from the season before but also an Oregon State record. Wagner took him aside after the meet and said, "O.K., that's it. I'm not sure exactly what you're doing, but it's working for you. So stick with it, I guess."

Sports can be generous like that, overruling biases in favor of results. With wins and losses at stake, Wagner hedged his bets. By the end of the season he was teaching some of the other jumpers how to do the Flop.

Except for the fact that nobody could teach him any of the historical methods of jumping, Fosbury was extremely coachable. When Wagner told him he needed more conditioning, Fosbury ran and hopped the 83 rows in Parker Stadium. You couldn't appeal to tradition with Fosbury, but you could fire his competitive neurons. That was something else about him, that need to win. Fosbury was not intrigued by benchmarks. In fact, after his event was won, he never continued jumping just to set a record. "He jumps against people, not heights," Wagner said.

At the end of his sophomore season Fosbury placed fourth in the college nationals but was still not a world-class high jumper; he was maybe in the top 25 in the U.S. But he was at least gaining renown for his style. Meet promoters who got a look at the Flop began inviting him to their events—the Oakland Indoor, the San Francisco All American Games. They didn't care how high he jumped, just how much hype he could generate. And the press loved it. A Los Angeles Times headline: BEAVER PHYSICS STUDENT TO SHOW UNUSUAL JUMPING FORM TODAY.

Since Fosbury hardly ever practiced the Flop ("There's no use wearing myself out," he said), the additional meets offered yet more opportunity for improvement. With higher grades of competition he was literally raising the bar on his event. In Oakland he cleared seven feet for the first time. Track & Field News put him on its cover in February 1968, as much to herald a format change for the magazine as a sea change in the high jump.

As a junior Fosbury became the country's most consistent seven-foot jumper. He won the 1968 NCAAs with a jump of 7'2¼". Up to then the attention he had been getting was for the character of his jump, not its magnitude. Fosbury had found it amusing to supply feature writers with a variety of origin myths, telling some he'd graphed out the Flop on paper first, others that he'd stumbled backward on his takeoff. But now, with these kinds of heights, it was getting more serious. "So, Dick," a sportswriter asked him, "any plans on going to the Olympics?" Fosbury had never registered that ambition, and he'd never been to a single international meet. Could his first be an Olympics? Wild!

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