Just because he was from the right side of town (and in little Medford, Ore., there was a right and a wrong side), Dick Fosbury was no more insulated from adolescent angst than the next teenager. He was tall, gangly to the extreme—"a grew-too-fast kid," his coach would say—and not good enough at anything he did to keep above the hallway fray.
Here's how it was at Medford High: Say Steve Davis (right side of town) spotted Bill Enyart (wrong side), first day of school. He'd grab Enyart by the neck and turn his collar inside out, exposing the source of shame right there on the label for all to see. "JC Penney!" he'd howl. And keep in mind, Enyart was the Medford High fullback, on his way to becoming Earthquake Enyart, an NFL career down the line. Social-class distinction offsets brawn any day. But do you think Davis would recognize Fosbury's shared aristocracy? (Fosbury's father was a truck sales manager, his mother a secretary.) If Davis caught Fosbury loitering by Fosbury's locker, he'd punch him in the shoulder.
Medford's bucolic charms—peach and pear orchards spreading beyond the modest cityscape (pop. 25,000)—were no consolation. Loving parents were great, but not as much use as you'd think when it came to the ritual humiliation of simply growing up. Did Dick Fosbury have it made? Of course. Was his every need fulfilled? Sure. But he was a child of yearning, of insufficient achievement, of bad skin, his talents such that nobody could take him seriously. He was beginning to understand the curse of the bell curve: He might very well be average. And when his head hit the pillow, no matter how soft the bed, he was as miserable as the next 13-year-old.
Fosbury hoped to play basketball. In fact, being 6'4", he fully expected to. But Medford High was loaded and had six guys who could dunk. (Steve Davis, a bigger and better athlete than Fosbury, was one of them.) Fosbury sat on the bench. His senior year, 1965, when the team went to the state tournament, he remained at home so that more promising underclassmen could gain the experience. He played football, a third-string end (Davis was the primary receiver) until his junior year, when Enyart came up under him during a blocking drill and knocked out his two front teeth. Enyart was his great pal. In the cold of winter, when the coed P.E. classes would be given over to dancing in the gym, the two would stand together on the sideline, trying to remain invisible, which was complicated by their height. (Enyart stood 6'3".) Come ladies' choice, though, Big Lois would pick Fosbury, and that would be quite a scene, the two of them doing the Freddie, their long arms and legs flapping like hinged two-by-fours. So Enyart felt bad about those teeth.
Fosbury's real love was track. Although he quickly recognized that he wasn't going to amount to much in races, his lankiness was not as big a handicap in the high jump. This was something he could do, sort of. Beginning in the fifth grade he made the high jump his event, using his height and long legs to get a quarter inch a year out of the antique Scissors jump, the one in which you run at the bar on a diagonal and more or less hurdle it, scissoring your legs over the bar and landing on your feet. The technique had been considered outdated since 1895, when straddling jumps were introduced. Still, Fosbury had gotten as high as 5'4" in junior high, and he'd even won one or two meets a year.
In high school it was a different story. His varsity coach insisted on the Western Roll, in which a jumper also runs in from an angle but kicks his outer (rather than inner) leg over the bar and crosses the bar sideways, usually landing on his feet. Fosbury couldn't get the hang of it. The takeoff foot seemed wrong. The whole thing was awkward. His first competition as a sophomore was an invitational, a meet of perhaps 20 teams, as many as 60 high jumpers involved, and Fosbury failed to clear the opening height of five feet on all three chances. He was going backward! If he maintained this level of improvement, he'd be tripping over curbs. Steve Davis, meanwhile, was clearing six feet pretty easily.
Maybe there comes a time in every kid's life when he confronts his mediocrity and submits to the tyranny of normality. A life without expression: just another guy, not a single trait or talent to mark him in a crowd. Fosbury, all of 15 now, wasn't there yet. He hadn't been crushed. On a 25-mile bus trip to Grants Pass, Ore., for a rotary meet with a dozen schools, he stared out the window and decided he was going to do whatever it took, make one last jump. If he finished the year at 5'4", the same as he jumped in ninth grade, he was done, doomed to a third-string life.
Fosbury reverted to the Scissors for his first jump that day (his coach, sympathetic, had given him grudging permission) and was relieved to clear 5'4". But that wouldn't be enough. The other jumpers were still warming up, waiting for the bar to be set at an age-appropriate height, while Fosbury continued to noodle around at his junior high elevations. If they, or anybody else, had been interested, though, they might have seen an odd transformation taking place, more like a possession, really. Fosbury was now arching backward ever so slightly as he scissored the bar, his rear end now coming up, his shoulders going down. He cleared 5'6". He didn't even know what he was doing, his body reacting to desperation. His third round, his body reclined even more, and he made 5'8".
The other jumpers began to gather; the coaches looked up from their charts. There was something odd about this, crazy even. On his fourth attempt Fosbury took a surprisingly leisurely approach to the bar and—My God! He was completely flat on his back now!—cleared 5'10". The coaches began arguing. Was this legal? Was it safe? Should it be allowed? What, exactly, had they just seen? The high jump was an event that measured advancement by fractions of an inch, sometimes over a year. Fosbury, conducting his own quiet defiance, had just improved a half foot in one day.
There have not been many breakthroughs in the annals of personal locomotion. Running forward, for example, is still considered the quickest unassisted way to get from point A to point B. Perhaps early man experimented with backpedaling as a means of escape, but the technique probably did not survive the first saber-toothed tiger. All the important means of fleeing and chasing were established early on, and with a certainty that only life-and-death consequences can provide.