Fosbury: Road to Games was bumpy
Callbacks are expected for movie roles.
They aren’t normally part of the process when qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team.
But track and field legend Dick Fosbury’s iconic high jump performance at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City might never have happened had he not come through in the clutch during an unexpected and perplexing second audition that fall.
He and other event winners thought they qualified for the team during trials in June in Los Angeles.
With little notice — a note on a trailer door at the training facility — athletes learned there would be do-overs at Echo Summit in South Lake Tahoe, California, that September, a month before the Games.
Everyone had to requalify.
“So I’m stunned,” said Fosbury, “but it’s time to rally.”
Fosbury, a 1965 Medford High graduate and inventor of the Fosbury Flop, told the relatively obscure story as the featured speaker at the Southern Oregon Sports Commission’s annual awards banquet Thursday at Santo Community Center.
It was the only time the U.S. Olympic Committee staged two trials.
During a 25-minute speech in front of about 250 attendees, Fosbury also told how he convinced the Oregon State University coach to allow him to continue to use his unique technique, of the moment its name gained widespread attention, of the first trials, then the second, and his remarkable performance in the Games that resulted in Olympic and American records.
The evolution of the jumping style, conjured during the Grants Pass Rotary Invitational when Fosbury was a sophomore at Medford in 1963, was complete by the time he graduated, having finished second in the state championships.
All that was left was for him to grow bigger, stronger and more adept at applying it.
He did, and Olympic gold-medal glory followed — but not without that bit of trepidation.
Out of high school, Fosbury got a letter of interest from renowned Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman, but he elected to go to OSU for its engineering program and to compete on the track team headed by new coach Berny Wagner.
Wagner, a proponent of the Western roll, told Fosbury of Plan A: His freshman year, Fosbury would practice using the roll, but he could Flop in meets, to score points.
“It’s win, win, everybody wins,” said Fosbury.
He made no significant gains until the first meet of his sophomore season. In the warm, dry clime of Southern California, Fosbury set a personal best by 3 inches and upped the school record to 6 feet, 10 inches.
Wagner came to him afterward with a new agenda, Plan B. The Flop was in.
They worked together to study the technique and build a training regimen suited to it.
“I was maturing and growing and I loved it,” said Fosbury. “The better I got, the more engaged I became.”
In the winter of ‘68, the junior was invited to indoor meets for the first time. There was talk of the Olympics later that year.
“Not with me,” laughed Fosbury, “but everybody was talking about it.”
He won his first meet, beating, among others, touring Russians who would be in the Games. In an interview, a reporter asked what he called this “indescribable” method.
“In my engineering, analytical mind, I said, ‘Well, I guess you could call it a back layout.’ And he didn’t even write it down. I’m going, ‘OK, check, noted.’”
Fosbury did even better his next meet, clearing 7-0 for the first time.
“I won the meet again, so now I’ve got four or five people interviewing me,” he said. “What do you call this technique, they said, and I said, ‘Back home, they call it the Fosbury Flop.’
“Everybody wrote it down. They ate it up.”
Fosbury’s reference was to a 1964 Mail Tribune caption that likened him landing in the pit to a fish flopping in a boat.
Fosbury won the first of his two NCAA championships in mid-June, then competed in what he thought were the Olympic trials two weeks later at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Winners there were to make the team, then the remaining two spots in each event would be determined in September at Echo Summit, following a 10-week training camp. The Tahoe site was used because it replicated Mexico City’s altitude of nearly 7,400 feet.
Fosbury won the Los Angeles meet at 7-1.
“There were good write-ups in the Oregonian and Mail Tribune,” said Fosbury. “‘Dick’s on the Olympic team.’”
He took a break toward the end of training to return to Medford and prepare for Mexico. When he went back to Echo Summit, he saw the USOC note on the door regarding the new trials format. He was not guaranteed a spot on the team.
“Fortunately for three of us,” said Fosbury, “we had our best day ever.”
They needed it. John Hartfield led the high jump when he cleared 7-2 on his first attempt. The next three — Fosbury, Ed Caruthers and Reynaldo Brown — made 7-3 for the first time in their careers, and Hartfield missed on his three attempts.
Fosbury was third, but, he said, “I cleared it with what my coach said was the best jump he’d ever seen me do.
“So I end up going to Mexico City, and the rest is history.”
The U.S. men set six world records and gleaned 24 medals, of which 12 were gold.
“It was the finest team the United States has ever had at the Games,” said Fosbury.
Jim Hines ran the first sub-10-second 100 meters; Bob Beamon long-jumped “into the next century,” said Fosbury; Al Oerter won his fourth discus gold medal; Tommie Smith set a world record in the 200.
And on the medals stand during the playing of the national anthem, sprinters Smith and John Carlos left the lasting and controversial image of black-gloved fists raised skyward, a Black Power symbol.
Fosbury raised a fist as he recounted the scene.
“We had an awesome team, and I was part of it,” he said.
A big part.
The qualifying round in the high jump was on a Saturday morning. Only about a quarter of the stadium was filled, said Fosbury, but the competition was intense.
He and his two teammates advanced to the finals.
“It was between the Americans and the Russians,” he said. “A couple other Europeans were pretty good, but we were really dominant.”
In the finals, Fosbury made every height on his first attempt through 7-3 ¼ and was in first place when it came down to him and Caruthers.
The bar moved to 7-4 ¼.
“Neither one of us had ever cleared it,” said Fosbury, “but it’s for a gold medal, so we’re gonna go for it.”
Both missed their first two attempts.
“Ed was jumping after me, so if I missed, Ed could take home the gold,” said Fosbury. “I couldn’t let that happen.”
He responded with the best jump of his life, and Caruthers couldn’t match it.
“I’ll never forget the feeling of space between my body and the bar,” said Fosbury.
He took three shots at the world record just over 7-5 but was unsuccessful.
It mattered little.
Fosbury punctuated his presentation with home video of himself and his Medford High teammates jumping over a bar and into a pile of sawdust.
It concluded with the Olympic-winning jump, him bouncing out of the pit, arms raised triumphantly.
On stage, he lifted his arms and celebrated simultaneously, reliving that glorious moment as the audience cheered.
This was an encore well-earned.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email firstname.lastname@example.org