February 29, 2012

Dick Fosbury Finds A New Way to Soar

I wanted to tell you about a kid named Dick Fosbury who literally revolutionized the sport of High Jumping.  He couldn’t do it the way they taught him to do it, so he invented a way he could do it, and now everyone does it his way.  

Dick was a tall kid and average in every way.  He wanted to be good at something so he could get a scholarship and go to college to get an engineering degree.  He tried Football, but he was just average and only succeeded in getting his front teeth knocked out.  He tried Basketball, and at 6’4” he should have been great, but there were already several great players on his High School team.  They could dunk and he couldn’t, so he just sat on the bench.  He tried other sports, but finally settled on Track and Field.  His coach thought his height would give him an advantage in the High Jump, but in every other event, he was just average as usual.

As Dick tried to follow his coach’s instructions to perform the high jump using the ‘Western Roll’ style, (and Dick was trying to follow the instructions), he just couldn’t do it.  He was tall and lanky, uncoordinated and the several different motions required were beyond his capabilities.  He was still jumping at the 5’4” height he had reached in 9th grade using the ‘Scissors’ style!  On the long bus ride heading to another Track meet, he decided he’d try one more time and if he couldn’t get it, he’d switch sports again.  But he would do whatever it took to reach something higher.

Fortunately, the schools had begun changing out the surfaces behind the high jump pits.  We are used to seeing the 3 foot tall fluffy pads that are in use now.  Back when Dick was jumping, the landing area was sand and wood chips at ground level.  The Western Roll and the other styles forced the jumper to land on his feet or face serious injury.  Arriving at this Rotary meet in Grand Pass Oregon, he saw that they had a high fluffy pad.  Desperate as he was to see improvement, Dick knew he wouldn’t hurt himself trying something new.

His first jump, using the more familiar Scissors technique, netted 5’4”, the standard he was trying to best or quit.  It wasn’t enough.  His next jump, he leaned further back, adjusting his body to try to better his jump.  It looked a bit odd, but he cleared two more inches.  On his third jump, he leaned even further back and made 5’8”.  

When he took his next jump, the bar was set at 5’10”, and he really wanted to make that height.  This time he let his instincts take his body adjustments further and when he jumped, he somehow was flat on his back now, totally out of form and yet he made it!  He landed on his back and the coaches erupted.  Was this legal?  Was it safe?  Was it even allowed?  It wasn’t the Scissor or the Western Roll or any other traditional style he was doing!  He had improved his jump by a half a foot in just 4 jumps, and everyone was paying attention.  (Most improvements in the sport are noted in fractions of an inch sometimes over the course of a whole year!)

Richard Hoffer of Sports Illustrated wrote, “When Fosbury jumped 5'10" at that rotary meet at Grants Pass in 1963, he was in a back layout position, his shoulders going even farther back in reaction to his lifting hips. It was on-site engineering, his body and mind working together, making reflexive adjustments with only one goal, getting over the bar. In an act of spontaneity, or maybe rebellion, he created a style unto itself.”  

Dicks coach was amazed, and not unwilling to let Dick do it his way after seeing his remarkable improvement.  He gave Dick complete freedom to experiment and the next year, Dick’s Junior year, he cleared 6’3”.  By his senior year, Dick could reach 6’5 ½”, well higher than his teammates.  It was still a local phenomenon, and Dick helped teach some of his teammates how he was doing it.  That was hard to do, since he was really making it up as he went along.  

At one of his Senior meets, a reporter noticed his strange form.  He said it looked like a fish flopping onto a boat.  His article gave the new style it’s name, the Fosbury Flop.  (Some said he looked like he was having a seizure midair, or falling from a tall building.) People still laughed at it, yet his jumps were much higher now.  Dick had a high jump style named after him, but colleges were not calling in droves.  After all, he really just wanted to get a scholarship to college somehow.  Fortunately, the local university, Oregon State got him a small scholarship and Dick gratefully accepted.

Dicks new college coach insisted that he go back to the Straddle (a combination of the Western Roll and the Scissor).  Dick, always good at following directions, did that.  But his jumps went back to his previous low levels.  At meets, sometimes Dick would revert back to his trademark jump and his heights would jump too.  In his Sophomore year, at a meet in Fresno, he reached 6’10” using the Flop.  His coach finally relented, seeing that he had actually set an Oregon State University record.  He pulled him aside and said, “Dick, I’m not exactly sure what you are doing, but it’s working for you.  So go ahead with it.”  Finally Dick had support and backing to keep refining this new technique.

Track meet promoters started calling Dick and asking him to perform at their meets with the headline about his new style.  Some headlines noted that he was a physics student refining a new technique.  It drew more crowds and gave Dick more opportunities to refine his form.  In his Junior year, he cleared 7 feet.  Now he was jumping at the heights of the Olympic class athletes!  In fact, he became the most consistent 7 foot jumper in the sport.  After reaching 7’2”, someone asked him if he would be interested in competing in the Olympics.  Dick was stunned!  He had never imagined anything like that, and here he was, using his own strange and comical technique, successful enough to consider Olympics!

Dick trained for and qualified for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City with a jump of 7’3”.  There, the long process of eliminating the weaker jumpers demanded that they start the bar at 6’6”.  The audience continued to laugh when they saw Dick flop over the bar in his strange new style.  By the time they reached 7’, only 5 jumpers remained.  Three were American and two were Soviet, and as this was during the Cold War, they were arch enemies.  The audience began to be won over by Dick and cheer for him instead of laugh.  After four hours of competition, with the sun setting, after two misses at the 7’4 1/4”, Dick ran toward the bar just as the Marathoners were entering the stadium.  Normally, the audience would begin cheering madly to see the racers finish this long race.  But they were already on their feet cheering, watching Dick make his last attempt at a new Olympic record.  Dick cleared the bar, whipping the crowd into a frenzy.  He had set an Olympic Record, earned a Gold Medal, all using a style he himself invented and fine-tuned.   

No coach gave him any pointers; no other athletes showed him the form.   Finally his style was recognized as the improvement over the older styles as it was.  Even so, for several more years there were skeptics.  One coach warned that this technique would wipe out an entire generation of high jumpers because they would all break their necks.  After the games, one reporter wrote,
When he did it tonight, Fosbury gave the world a spectacular display. The people at Oregon State are studying hundreds of films of their flying civil engineer in action, but so far nobody has figured out a way to duplicate his style. It is totally unlike the scissorkick, the Western roll, the Eastern cutoff and other techniques. Even Fearless Fosbury is amazed. ‘Sometimes I see movies,’ he says, ‘and I really wonder how I do it.’  However, Fosbury foresees the day when boys all over America will be soaring over bars upside-down. ‘I think quite a few kids will begin trying it my way now,’ he said. ‘I don't guarantee results, and I don't recommend my style to anyone. All I say is if a kid can't straddle, he can try it my way.’”

Indeed, in the next ten years, the Fosbury Flop became the common High Jumping style.  No World Records have been set since 1980 using any other technique.  Dick truly changed this sport completely!  He developed a new style by listening to his body and working with his knowledge and interest in Physics and Engineering.  He ignored the laughter of critics and did what worked for him with his abilities and limitations. 

We can do the same with our challenges and abilities, we just need to think outside of the box.   

To read more, see:
“Fearless Fosbury Flops to Glory” by Joseph Durso, October 20, 1968, New York Times, found at http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/sports/year_in_sports/10.20.html

This day in History, Oct 20, 1968: “Fosbury flops to an Olympic record” at http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/fosbury-flops-to-an-olympic-record

September 14, 2009, Sports Illustrated, “The Revolutionary:  As a gawky teenager in the 1960’s, 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” by RICHARD HOFFER found at http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1160029/1/index.htm

Cornell University’s analyzes why his technique works using Physics at http://thevirtuosi.blogspot.com/2011/08/physics-in-sports-fosbury-flop.html

Watch Dick perform his flop on U-Tube by searching ‘fosbury flop' in your search.

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