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My final thoughts on Foz

When Dick Fosbury’s agent told me Monday morning (March 13, 2022) that lymphoma had claimed the 76-year-old man who’d won an Olympic gold medal and revolutionized high-jumping, I didn’t have time to grieve.

As co-author of Dick’s memoir, The Wizard of Foz: Dick Fosbury’s One-Man High-Jump Revolution, I spent much of the week doing interviews. Now, in the quiet, I’ve finally carved out the time to summarize my thoughts on the man. Those thoughts left me sad about his passing and privileged about getting to be the one to tell Dick’s full story, which highlights how he was the most unlikely of Olympic gold medalists.

In late 2017, as the two of us finished the book, we came up with this for a dedication:

To those who follow their imaginations,

shoot for the moon,

and stand for what’s right.

To me, it succinctly reflected what Fosbury was all about.

To those who follow their imaginations …

Fosbury was more than a dreamer; anyone can imagine themselves doing something great. Foz was a visionary who not only thought outside the box but acted on such thoughts. Like the boy in the children’s book Harold & the Purple Crayon, he drew what he needed—in his case, an entirely new way of getting over the high-jump bar—and let the image take him where he needed to go. “Has there ever been an athlete who epitomized American imagination better than Fosbury with his revolutionary Flop?” asked the late Kenny Moore, a University of Oregon runner, an Olympic marathoner, and perhaps the finest Sports Illustrated writers I’ve ever read.

Most athletes do the same things; some just do it better. But Fosbury’s “Flop” high-jump style was like no other stylistic change in the history of track and field. On April 20, 1963, at the Rotary Invitational Track & Field Meet in Grants Pass, the Medford High sophomore was so desperate to improve on his paltry 5’4” best that he resorted to the “scissors” style, a quick left-right leg combo whose shelf life had expired decades before. But he relied on the old to invent the new. In mid-air, while literally turning his back on the establishment, Fosbury discovered that if “I just lifted my butt” and leaned back, he could go higher. He improved six inches that day, and the Fosbury Flop was born.

Those who dare to blaze new trails are often met with resistance. Fosbury was no exception. Competitors laughed at him. Doctors said he’d break his neck. Opposing coaches claimed the style was illegal. His own high-jump coach said it was goofy and wouldn’t get him anywhere.

Fosbury persevered. Even after Oregon State coach Berny Wagner tried to “de-program” Dick, he refused to bag the Flop. And, of course, he got the last laugh—and, he joked, “naming rights.”

As C.C. Colton once said: “Those who have finished by making all others think with them have usually been those who began by daring to think for themselves.”

Shoot for the moon …

Fosbury’s confidence was not the stuff of other high-jumpers, one of whom put a chalk mark at 7’0” in his room and vowed to someday leap that high to win an Olympic gold medal. Fosbury’s confidence belied his loosey-goosey nature and burned deep within, born, I argued in the book, of a traumatic childhood that left him desperate to find a place to belong. After the death of his younger brother Greg in a hit-and-run accident and his parents’ subsequent divorce, the only place Dick found a sense of peace, acceptance, and camaraderie was on the track team—but he couldn’t stay on that team unless he jumped higher. So, he all but willed himself to do so—even if it meant going head to head with the status quo.

Those who dare to shoot for the moon are often met with resistance. Fosbury was no exception. He flunked out of OSU and lost his student deferment; only a bad back kept him from getting drafted and probably going to Vietnam. He nearly drowned in Lake Tahoe three months before the Games, saved by Oregon State teammate John Radetich. He earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in June 1968 by winning the first of two qualifying meets (LA) but in September the U.S. Olympic Committee changed the selection process in mid-stream—and threw out the results from LA. Like in a game of H-O-R-S-E, Fosbury, with only a few days to get ready, had to “prove it” in September. The second meet was held at 7,377-foot elevation above South Lake Tahoe, California, to replicate the elevation at Mexico City. Fosbury was down to his last jump; a third miss at 7’2” and he wouldn’t make the team. He not only made it but cleared 7’3” on his first attempt to secure the third and final spot. “Dick’s greatest jump ever,” said Wagner.

Until, of course, he went 7’4¼” to beat the world at Mexico City six weeks later.

And stand for what’s right …

Fosbury’s hometown of Medford held a parade in his honor. In Corvallis, he couldn’t buy his own beer; fans were happy to do that. But Fosbury’s high-jump career was meteoric. After winning the Olympic gold medal, he never came close to replicating his success. Beyond winning a third Pac-8 title and second NCAA title, Fosbury was considered by many sportswriters to be a one-hit wonder. But those who thought so would be people who missed the deeper, non-athletic side of the man.

Given the chance, Fosbury returned to school and earned his degree in civil engineering. He joined friends to protest the war in Vietnam. And when most of OSU’s athletes signed a petition to support football Coach Dee Andros’ dismissing of an African American player, Fred Milton, for having the slightest of beards, Fosbury stood in defense of Milton at a rally. Realizing this was not about facial hair but discrimination—black athletes weren't allowed to date white women, for example—he expressed his support of the Black Student Union’s boycott of OSU, even though silence would have been the safer choice.

Those who dare to shoot for the moon are often met with resistance. Fosbury was no exception. He was seen as being disloyal to OSU. As a radical. As a disruptor. Nobody bought his beer anymore.

But Fosbury had a quiet confidence. He moved to Idaho, opened his own civil engineering firm, started track and field camps for young athletes, and rose to be president of the World Olympians Association, among whose goals is to use sports to build bridges among people from different countries. He was an incredible ambassador for Medford, Oregon State, the United States, and the Olympic movement in general.

At the time of his death, Fosbury was serving as a county commission in Idaho. Mike Higgs, an OSU grad who’s been entrenched in the business sector of the area near Sun Valley where Dick lived, said Fosbury was universally popular. “He was unassuming, affable, generous,” said Higgs.

I’ve twice quit book projects involving professional athletes because I realized their egos were making me wary about attaching my name to their books. Perhaps that’s why I was drawn to the humility of Fosbury, who, a year before the Olympics, was running the down marker at the Oregon State-USC football game and, three months before the Games, was flipping burgers in South Lake Tahoe to make spending money.

In a time when athletes are quick to celebrate themselves, Fosbury held lightly to his Olympic success. In 1988, when I interviewed him for a Sports Illustrated story, a neighbor in Idaho heard that he’d been invited to a Superstars competition in Florida. “Why,” she asked, “would they invite a surveyor?” She had no idea the guy across the street was an Olympic gold medalist who’d revolutionized the high-jump event forever. (The last Olympic high jumper to place using any style other than the Fosbury Flop was in 1972, fifty-one years ago.)

Thirty years after I met Dick for the SI story, he hadn’t changed a bit when we began work on The Wizard of Foz. Dick always struck me as the real deal, a guy who didn’t just know a lot of people but had deep friendships involving those who couldn’t care less that he’d won a gold medal; they just liked the guy. At book-signing events, I’d be fretting about long lines and our need to sign faster; meanwhile, he’d be getting down on one knee to engage a guy in a wheelchair, eye to eye. Dick Fosbury had little affinity for fame; he had a great affinity for other human beings.

He was, I believe, quietly proud that he’d revolutionized high jumping with an invention that, at first, many opposed. But I don’t think that the "inventor of the Flop" became who he saw in the mirror every morning. He saw more. And so did the many people whose lives he touched.

My favorite moment with Foz came in October 2018 when, after a signing event at Eugene Running Company, we retreated to my house. He saw the hammock in the backyard and eased into it with a smile on his face. To me, that was Foz: living in the moment, content with his place in the world, and, of course, leading with his back.

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1 Comment

So true, what a man he was on so many levels. To those of us who attempt to soar to the heavens, but always fall back to earth, Dick was our lodestar. Bob, once again you have captured the essence of Fos.

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