Somewhere in the late 1960s as a student at Martin Meylin Junior High near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I was introduced to the sport of track and field. One of the events I tried was the high jump. At that time, the pits into which we jumped were made of piles of rope bags holding strips of foam together. It was primitive at best, but something about jumping over that bar excited me.
Before those high jump bags were contrived, athletes jumped over the bar into piles of sawdust. I recall doing that on our own with some friends. You either did the Western Roll or “straddle” as it was called, or the scissor-kick. Then hoped you landed safely.
The scissor kick was the truly archaic way to jump. Even back then, no one took it seriously. Running at an angle toward the bar, you kicked one leg up and over the bar while keeping the torso largely erect. You landed with one foot and then the other, typically kicking up a bit of sawdust or tangling your feet in the bags of foam in the process. It was an awkward era, to say the least.
Run and jump
I looked up the history of the high jump and apparently it all started with competitors running straight at the bar like the long jump and going over the bar that way. The record for that style, set in the late 1800s, was around 6’2″. That was a long time ago, but it still means that someone lifted their fanny that high off the ground. Sadly, that is also the exact height I eventually jumped in my career in both straddle and flop styles. That shows how mediocre I was as a high jumper.
Then came the scissor kick. The world record for the modified scissor-kick technique wound up at 6’9″. That is also extremely high! Eventually the roll technique took over, and according to LiveAbout.com, the world record for the roll climbed over a period of a decade:
“Russia’s Valeriy Brumel was even more prolific, setting six world records from 1961-63. He improved the mark by 1 centimeter each time, topping out at 2.28/7-5¾. Brumel’s last mark stood for eight years, but Pat Matzdorf brought the record back to American shores by clearing 2.29/7-6¼ at a World All-Star meet against Soviet athletes in 1971.”
I share all this because my little evolution as a jumper traced all these techniques. But none of it would have been possible without changes in the style of pits in which we landed. In a short period of time from 1969 through 1971, high jump pits evolved from bags of strung-together foam strips to solid foam high jump mats that stood three feet high.
In between, there was a period when we jumped into inflatable pits called Cloud 9. Both high jump and pole vault used these marginally insane devices. I was still jumping straddle when the first Cloud 9 pit showed up at little Kaneland High School out in the corn fields west of Chicago. It was always windy out at that track and more than once when I was approaching the pit for a jump, the Cloud 9 shifted or unhinged or pulled up from its stakes. It would rise up and flop over like a fat cow in a field of grass. There is nothing more unnerving during high jump than making at attempt at full speed only to watch the pit disappear.
It was also common to land on the edge the Cloud 9’s rounded front end and bounce back onto the tarmac. For pole vaulters (and I never did that event) it was even more treacherous. Thanks to these problems, and within a couple years, those Cloud 9 pits disappeared. That was likely the result of litigation against them. A Google search doesn’t even turn up an image of those pits. The Cloud 9 brand name is still used for those inflatable bouncy playgrounds castles and such used at children’s parties. So perhaps the company never disappeared. It just lowered its standards, so to speak.
Of course, high jump really started to change after Dick Fosbury invented an all-new method of high jumping called the Fosbury Flop. He won the Gold Medal at the 1968 Olympics and the world of high-jumping never looked back.
About the time the Cloud 9 vanished from the scene, I started to experiment with the Fosbury Flop technique. It was much safer once the high jump pit was a heavy foam mattress firmly fixed to the ground. Even so, I once jumped 6’0′ in rainy conditions and slid right off the back of the pit.
High jumping was a tool for scoring points. During high school dual meets I’d jump right after running the two-mile at the start of the meet. Then I’d go triple jump after that, and complete the day by running the mile. I did all that to help the team earn points. I did win all four events a few times.
That wasn’t necessarily the way to become a better distance runner, but it was a period when multisport athletes in general were common, so doing multiple events in track was typical as well.
Now about that triple-jumping. I came to track and field from a background in basketball. While I was never a pure leaper in the sense of vertical leap, I was good at converting speed into height and distance. My best effort in the triple jump was 40’4″, a school record at the time. I will confess that record should not have counted, as there was a healthy wind behind me at the time. The record didn’t last long after I graduated anyway, as triple jump was a relatively new event at the time. Once the real jumpers took over my record vanished into the ether of time.
Jumping for the joy of it
Before taking up triple jump, I long jumped quite a bit as well. My best was 19’1″, which in retrospect I find rather respectable. The fact that my skinny distance runner legs with calves like toothpicks were able to jump that far is no small feat. I really wanted to go twenty feet, and wasn’t for lack of trying. I’d sometimes go out and long jump before school at Kaneland HS when I should have been spending time in early morning study hall. I’d back up that runway and tear down the asphalt with all my might. With no tape measure to gauge my efforts, the notion of success or failure depended walking back from every jump with my feet to guess how far I’d gone.
In college I abandoned both long jump and triple jump. But I kept high jumping through my freshman year. At the end of the year, I competed in a ‘jump off’ to earn a chance to compete at the conference meet because the three distance slots per event (1500, 5000, 10000) were all filled by older, faster runners. In that meet, I jumped 6’1.5 inches to place in the Top Ten but the winner went 6’8″.
At one indoor meet that year at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, one of their high jumpers cleared 7’0″ using a modified gymnastic run-up in which the athlete did a forward hand spring and dove over the bar after both feet contacted the ground in a powerful fashion. That was the problem. It was impossible to tell if that jumper was hitting both feet or one at a time. The rules disallow jumping with both feet. So his technique vanished. How many athletes could do it anyway?
I actually coached jumpers during my tenure as assistant coach with the St. Charles Track Club in the mid-1970s. In particular there was a series of girl jumpers who did quite well in state competitions. Andra Olson was one of those athletes from Sycamore. Her brother Gail won a state championship and cleared 7’0″ in high school. Some of the most unique jumpers were the tween girls whose gymnastic backgrounds gave them spring and flexibility, both great attributes in high jump. Several of them jumped 5’8″ at the age of twelve of thirteen. Of these athletes, I’m pretty sure a sprite named Kelly Murphy jumped 5’8″ along with a couple other athletes of that period. Perhaps that was Patty MacLaughlin. Hard to recall after all these years.
In any case, Kelly had an especially ebullient personality that complemented her considerable athletic ability. She ran fast as well, and was one of dozens of kids who made that program special back in the day. It’s not that hard to coach talent. Just say “Go!”
By the time I was a sophomore in college, I gave up field events such as HJ, LJ and TJ entirely because a new focus had taken over my track career. That was steeplechase, the event in which distance runners cover 3000 meters over 35 barriers and 7 water jumps. My jumping ability helped with the hurdling. Where it really helped was clearing the water jump. The pit was 2.5 feet deep below the barrier and rose to a zero depth incline twelve feet away. I’d step on the barrier and leap out and over the water, often without getting even one foot wet.
That’s a helpful advantage in a race where soaking wet shoes are a common aspect of the event. I went on to qualify for nationals in steeplechase three times, with times dropping each year until I ran a 9:19 at a conference meet while keeping the pace under control to save energy for a 5000 meter double. One of my few regrets in track and field is not having the chance to run all-out that day. My PR would be perhaps 5-10 seconds better, but sacrificing that chance to try to help the team win the conference meet was the right thing to do. We still didn’t win, but we tried. And that’s what counts in the end.
All that high jumping and long jumping and triple jumping I did for all those years… falls into the same void between vainglorious indulgence and being a team player. It as fun. That’s all I can say. It also taught me that there are limits we all encounter in life. Plus it teaches you humility to shake that sawdust and foam dust out of your shorts and get that sand out of your ass crack.