Fosbury will compete with no fear of flop.

World Masters Games is first meet in 25 years

Wednesday, August 12 1998

By Kerry Eggers of The Oregonian staff

At 51, his face still boyish and his lanky body fit, Dick Fosbury appears as if he could still hit the high jump pit and scale, oh, say 6-feet-6 or so. But when Fosbury takes the Hayward Field track today in Eugene for his first real competition in 25 years, he will be shooting for something on a considerably smaller scale.

"I would like to jump 5-2, maybe 5-4," said the Medford native, the 1968 Olympic champion and inventor of the "flop" method of jumping. "I think I still have reasonably good technique, but your body changes over time. I've come to terms with it."

Fosbury is putting his reputation on the line against all comers in the Nike World Masters Games. Why risk a hallowed name against a potential Johnny-come-lately?

"I know," Fosbury said. "I was at a 30-year reunion of the 1968 Olympic team in June and several people told me, 'Dick, I can't believe you're going to do that. Those guys are going to love to kick your tail.' Well, so be it. They deserve the chance. If they can beat me, I'll salute them. That is what sports is all about. I like the sport, I like to jump, I'm going to do it."

When Fosbury was first approached last year about being part of the World Masters Games, his idea was to participate in the opening ceremonies, conduct a clinic and lend his name to a good cause. Then Nike's Jack Elder called Fosbury at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, and asked if he would be interested in competing.

"I said probably not," Fosbury said. "I have jumped a little bit at a track camp I have done the last eight summers in Lewiston, Maine, but it was nothing much. "Then Jack sent me the World Masters newsletter and I found out that, shoot, I'm competitive with these guys. They jump anywhere from 4-8 to 5-8. I jumped 5-2 at camp, so I'm right in the middle.

"It should be fun. I'm not going out there to win like Lee Evans is in the 400 and 800. But I want to help promote the event, and I think this is a great concept. Our age group -- the Baby Boomers -- is interested in fitness and health. If I can bring some attention to this and get more people to start exercising and playing sports, great."

This will be Fosbury's first high-jump competition since he cleared 6-10 in an obscure meet on the ill-fated International Track Association professional circuit in 1973. Much change has occured in Fosbury's life since. There have been two marriages, each ending in divorce, and a son, Eric, now almost 16. There has been a successful 20-year run as a civil engineer in the Sun Valley

region of Idaho. Fosbury serves as city engineer for Ketchum and is co-owner of Galena Engineering.

"We have grown from two employees in 1978 to 21 today," Fosbury said. "It has taken years to develop the confidence where people trust you and rely on you. I'm fortunate, but I work hard at it. (Sun Valley) is a beautiful spot, and that is what has kept me there. It is very fitness- and health-oriented, has clean air, blue skies, stars at night. I love it."

With 193 pounds neatly distributed over his 6-4 frame, Fosbury is only 10 pounds over his college weight. Part of it is owed to a daily training regimen in the gym. Part of it to an active lifestyle.

"I learned a long time ago, if I don't get out and exercise, I don't do well in the office," Fosbury said. "I get all stressed out, all wound up. I need a program to release that. That enables me to do all the other things like rollerblading and mountain biking and hiking. I've been snowboarding for seven years -- it is something I can share with my son -- and that kind of got me back up

on the hill. Before that, I'd learned to Alpine ski and cross-country ski-skate."

Whatever he does, wherever he goes, Fosbury's name is indelibly linked to the high jump as the inventor of the "Fosbury Flop." During the 1968 Games in Mexico City, the Oregon State graduate's contribution wasn't a historic mark like Bob Beamon's 29-2 long jump, nor did it carry the social significance of the black power protest. Still, it dramatically altered the landscape of an event -- and changed his life forever.

It all came about quite by accident. Thirty-some years later, Fosbury doesn't mind re-telling the tale one more time. The high jumping method of the era was the straddle, or Western roll, in which the athlete would clear the bar facing it, one leg after the other. As a ninth-grader in Medford, Fosbury employed a "scissors" style used then by a lot of young children, and jumped 5-4. When he arrived at Medford High School as a sophomore in 1963, coaches Dean Benson and Fred Spiegelberg tried to convert him to the straddle.

"I go out at 5-feet in my first meet," Fosbury said. "I get up to where I can straddle 5-4, but I'm so bad, I'm being passed by everybody. I ask coach Benson if I can go back to the scissors, just to get my confidence up, so he says, 'OK, I don't want you to make it a permanent thing, but go ahead.'

"Our next meet is in Grants Pass, and using the scissors, I make 5-4. And I am sitting there looking at the bar at 5-6, trying to figure out, 'Now how can I jump higher?' I know I have to lift my butt up, because that is usually where you knock the bar up. So as I try to lift my hips up, my shoulders go back a little bit, and I clear 5-6. It was kind of a lazy scissors. At 5-8, I lift my hips a little higher, and my shoulders go back a little further, and I make it. At 5-10, same thing. By this time, I am going over the bar flat on my back. I'm upside down from everyone else, into kind of a back layout. I go out at 6-feet, and nobody knows what the heck I'm doing.

"I go 5-10 the next week at the district meet. I don't place, but at least it gives me the confidence that I can be competitive again. By the next season, I am starting to lead in with my left shoulder, and that starts to have me go over at an angle instead of parallel to the bar. By now, I am going over at about a 45-degree angle to the bar, still on my back, and with no arch at all, kind of flat and still in a layout scissors. I get up to 6-3 , which is pretty good, but I don't make the state meet.

"By the end of my senior year, my style has evolved fully into the flop. I break the school record at 6-5 , finish second in state, but no scholarship offers. After jumping 6-7 to win the national high school championships in Houston in June, I talk my way into a tuition-and-fees ride at Oregon State. There is a new coach, Berny Wagner, who says he likes what I am doing, but thinks I can go higher with the straddle.

"So after I get there, we cut a deal where he will teach me to straddle during the week, but to maintain my confidence, I can flop in meets on the weekends. The concept was I would gradually surpass what I was doing as a flopper with the straddle. During the spring of my sophomore year,

I was doing about 6-4 with the straddle. Then I went to a meet in California and broke the school record at 6-10 with the flop. Berny said, 'That's it. I give up. I am going to start filming you, studying what you're doing. We are going to develop this thing.'

Over the the next two years, as he won back-to-back NCAA championships along with Olympic gold, Fosbury learned something about himself that had nothing to do with technique and everything to do with a rare innate talent.

"I discovered I am a very competitive person," he said. "I never set a school record, never set a personal record, after the other guys went out. If there was head-to-head competition, I was in until the end. That's what drove me. Some of the techniques I developed -- visualization and a positive motivation sequence I would go through -- is being taught to athletes today. I just learned to do this internally."

It is why he was able to get through a difficult Olympic trials competition in which he was one jump from elimination, before clearing a personal-record 7-2 on his final attempt. It is why, in front of a packed house and an international TV audience in Mexico City, he was able to outperform the best in the world. It is about rising to the challenge, and conquering.

"A lot of people, when they're out there in front of 80,000 people, would just like to find a place to hide," he said. "There is something in my personality where I thrived on that. When I was on stage, I was focused, I was prepared."

The celebrity status that accompanied his Olympic feat was exciting and frightening. He high-jumped with Johnny Carson and Bill Cosby on the Tonight Show. He was a guest on the Dating Game. He met Dustin Hoffman, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin. At 21, he was Opie Taylor taking on life in the fast lane.

"I had a horrible time dealing with all the attention, really," Fosbury said. "It was too much. I was a small-town kid who did something way beyond what I had ever expected to to. I liked the attention, but I wanted it to be over at a point. It didn't work that way. I did all those exciting things, met all the movie stars, then you had to go back to college at Oregon State. You are

not prepared to deal with this overwhelming thing. You get out of control. You're put on a pedestal, and the public reaction is either overdone, or they tear you down. When you step down from that podium, they don't let you become human. What I did was essentially drop out of track, withdraw, keep to myself and try to find out who I am."

Thirty years later, Fosbury has a more mature appreciation of his Olympic experience.

"It was a moment that changed my life," he said. "It brought me gifts -- not necessarily monetarily. I have met presidents and kings, seen the world, shared my life with wonderful people. It opened doors and allowed people to perceive me in a positive light. I have learned to respect that and hold myself to a certain standard because of it."

The impact Fosbury has had on his event was unprecedented, though not immediate.

"Kids took up (the flop) immediately, because it was on television, I won the gold medal using it, and they said, 'That looks fun. I want to do that,'" Fosbury said. "The elite athletes, though, were not interested in dropping 12 years of dedication and practice to switch over to something that was unproven."

Then along came Dwight Stones in 1972, and a wave of young jumpers using Fosbury's style. By 1976, all three medalists were floppers; by the 1980s, the straddle was virtually extinct.

"I'm not possessive about it," Fosbury said. "I was blessed to be the first. I am totally convinced somebody was going to discover the technique. It just felt natural to me; I didn't know others would find it natural. It is great the event has continued to advance, probably faster than it would have if we were all still straddling. I'm very happy to have given something to the sport."

Today, Fosbury will be competing again, for the first time in a quarter-century. There is no telling how high he will go or what he will place. But once the old competitive juices start flowing, it is unlikely Dick Fosbury will flop.

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) -- He didn't soar as high as he could 30 years ago, but just as he did during the 1968 Olympics, Dick Fosbury reached his goal.

Fosbury, the Medford native whose famous "flop" at the Mexico City Games won him the gold medal and changed high jumping forever, took third in the 50-54 age group at the Nike World Masters Games on Wednesday, clearing 5 feet, 3 inches.

A Slovenian named Franc Vivod won the event at famed Hayward Field with a leap of 5-5.

While Fosbury's mark was nowhere near his performance in front of 80,000 in Mexico City, Wednesday's leap -- in front of about 50 people -- was the first time he had competed in a meet in 25 years.