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The Wizard of Foz

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The writer approached the former star athlete. He had a project in mind, a book about the athlete’s remarkable accomplishments in the sports arena. Oh, and assorted other things about his life.

Bob Welch, the author of more than 20 books and a newspaperman in Eugene, figured he’d be third or fourth in line with the idea for Dick Fosbury, he of Medford roots, an Oregon State University education and an American legacy.

The 50th anniversary of high-jumper Fosbury’s historic performance in the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games is approaching. That October, using the unorthodox, revolutionary style he cobbled together as a Medford High School sophomore, Fosbury won the gold medal at an American-record 7 feet, 4 1/4 inches and presented the world with a new way to jump: the Fosbury Flop.

Now, it’s the only way.

Welch thought the timing was perfect for a book. In January 2017, he called Fosbury. They’d met nearly 30 years earlier, when Welch did a freelance piece for Sports Illustrated commemorating the 20th anniversary of Fosbury’s victory.

To Welch’s surprise, he was, indeed, first in line. So began the project, “The Wizard of Foz,” a work that, in its infancy, was not atypical of the genre: athlete overcomes challenges and becomes really good at what he does.

Little did Welch know, there was so much more to the story. As he delved deep, he realized how “vanilla” his SI piece had been; how he never knew about the defining moment in Fosbury’s life, a mind-numbing tragedy at age 14 when a younger sibling lost his life, and the resultant guilt that tormented those the brother left behind.

“I think a lot of people know kid couldn’t jump high, kid invented a new style, kid wins the Olympic gold medal,” said Welch. “A lot of people know the basics, but most people don’t know the enormous hurdles he had to overcome to get the gold medal.”

“The Wizard of Foz” lays them out.

The 256-page book, released Tuesday by Skyhorse Publishing, sells for $24.95.

Welch will be in Medford early next week to speak about his work and to sign books. He’ll be at Barnes & Noble, 1400 Biddle Road, at 6 p.m. Monday, and at the Medford Rotary Club meeting at noon Tuesday at Rogue Valley Country Club.

“To me it’s just exciting,” said Welch, “the early returns I got, to hear from people who understand this is not just a sports book about another athlete who did great. I think it’s a history book, for one thing. There’s a lot of the ‘60s entwined in Dick’s story.”

Welch weaves historical anecdotes throughout, and there’s far more perseverance and survival in Fosbury’s story than one might expect.

His 10-year-old brother, Greg, was killed by a drunk driver days before school started in 1961, and Fosbury’s parents divorced a year later, the tragedy taking a profound toll.

“He just laid that on me,” said Welch.

Welch encouraged Fosbury to put in his own words what he remembered from the incident. The Mail Tribune story and Fosbury’s account of the hit-and-run on Crater Lake Avenue, just south of Roberts Road, where they lived, are in the book.

Fosbury had roughhoused with his brother earlier in the day and dominated him to the point Greg cried. To make it up to him, Dick invited him on the fateful bike ride, something they never did together. Their parents were at a square dance that evening, a Saturday ritual.

Greg trailed a short distance behind Dick when he was struck in dimming daylight.

“I always had respect for Fosbury, but I had no idea what he’d overcome,” said Welch, who includes thoughts from experts about the effects the loss of a child has on families.

“He wrote exactly what happened,” said Welch, “and I think he found that freeing.”

People who go through grief are more willing to take risks, said Welch. Being ridiculed and losing a bit of self-esteem over high jumping was insignificant compared to what Fosbury had already experienced.

The youngster pressed on, but it wasn’t easy.

None of his coaches — from Dean Benson and Fred Spiegelberg at Medford High to Berny Wagner at Oregon State — fully embraced his high-jump style, a back layout that had him facing the sky as he cleared the bar.

Many an onlooker scoffed at him.

Fosbury, who considered himself one of the worst high school jumpers in the state and wanted badly to keep his place on the team, unveiled the modified-scissors technique out of desperation at the Grants Pass Rotary meet in 1963.

Despite the misgivings of his coaches, he gradually beat out other kids, scored some team points and, by his senior year, was second in the state.

At Oregon State, Wagner had him work on the straddle — another popular technique of the time — in practice but use the flop in meets. He also tried to turn Fosbury into a triple jumper.

From the time Fosbury left Medford for OSU until the start of his sophomore track season, he was a mess.

“He didn’t know if he was fish or fowl,” said Welch. “He was depressed, confused, he lost his mojo.”

Fosbury and his girlfriend broke up, he struggled in school, was kicked out of his fraternity, avoided being drafted for the Vietnam War because of a bad back and was told by Wagner he could lose his scholarship if he didn’t perform better.

“He was in shambles his sophomore year,” said Welch.

Not until the first meet of the spring, in late March 1968 in Fresno, California, did things turn for Fosbury. He cleared 6 feet, 10 inches to set an OSU record and, finally, bring Wagner into his corner.

“That jump,” Fosbury says in the book, “was my salvation with Berny.”

Said Welch: “That really was his takeoff point to greatness.”

Fosbury captured the Pac-8 and NCAA championships, then finished first in Los Angeles in what was believed at the time to be the Olympic Trials. However, in an unprecedented move, the U.S. Olympic Committee decided to hold a second trials in the woods near Lake Tahoe at 7,377 feet, to replicate the thin air of Mexico City.

Fosbury thought he’d secured a spot on Team USA, only to learn he had to compete again at Echo Summit. He was among three jumpers who went 7-3 to claim a berth, but only after a fourth competitor missed three times at that height.

“There were all of these different points where Dick could have failed,” said Welch.

Not the least of which was a frightening moment when he was saved from drowning by a teammate in Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay.

Nevertheless, Fosbury made the U.S. team, its strongest ever, and competed in the Games that featured Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their gloved fists in a black-power salute during a medals ceremony.

As Welch describes in the book, Fosbury paid little heed then. He was focused on his own competition days later.

Afterward, however, the gestures gave Fosbury pause.

When he mulled what Smith and Carlos had done, “a little bell went off,” said Welch. “Why are these guys doing this? Why are their lives different than mine? He started to study and talk about it and realized he had grown up with blinders on.”

Medford was considered, in Fosbury’s youth, a sundown town, where blacks weren’t welcome after sunset.

When he returned from winning the gold medal, a more reflective and mature Fosbury stood with Fred Milton, a black Oregon State football player who was embroiled in a race-related controversy with popular head coach Dee Andros.

In the book, Welch quotes Tommie Smith a half-century later: “Dick’s response at OSU was a latent response to Mexico City. He was a deep thinker and wasn’t trying to make trouble. He was on the quiet side. But this was a human-rights issue and he’d come to see if you don’t stand up for something you’ll fall for anything.”

Fosbury’s notoriety as an active athlete was remarkably short, from the Fresno meet in March through the Olympics seven months later. He did win the NCAA title as a junior, but he never matched his triumphant jump from the Games.

He earned his degree in civil engineering in 1972 and has lived in Idaho since the mid-1970s, operating his own firm and taking speaking and coaching engagements around the world.

Fosbury not only fits the narrative of a good sports story, said Welch, but goes well beyond.

“He left forever a stamp on his event,” said Welch. “He was a true revolutionary. You just don’t see athletes who have the sustainability like Dick Fosbury.

“Every time a kid goes over a high jump bar, a part of Dick Fosbury goes with him.”

Fosbury’s reaction to the book?

“He called me last week out of the blue,” said Welch, “and said, you know, people are really liking this book. I don’t know that he had great expectations for it, but once he saw it, I think he was pleasantly surprised.”

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com

Dick Fosbury does the Fosbury Flop during his high-jumping heyday.