Dick Fosbury, who was inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame this past summer, revolutionized the high jump when, as a sophomore at Medford (Oregon) High School in 1963, he used his new technique which became known as the Fosbury Flop. The upside-down, back-layout style became the standard as all records around the world have been established by athletes using the Fosbury Flop. Using his new method, Fosbury improved his jumps from 5-4 as a sophomore to 6-5½ as a senior and placed second in the state meet. He continued to perfect the “Flop” at Oregon State University, where he claimed the NCAA high jump title in 1968 with a 7-2¼ effort. That same year, Fosbury won the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City with a 7-4¼ jump, which broke both the Olympic and American records. Fosbury was named to the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame, the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame and the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame. He retired in 2011 after 30 years as a civil engineer in Idaho, but he continues to coach athletes at Dick Fosbury Track Camps in Maine and Idaho.
Question: What led to you participating in track and field events?
Fosbury: I started doing track and field in grade school; it was part of our culture at school in Medford, Oregon. I played football, went out for basketball and, in the spring, we had to choose between baseball and track. I headed right for track and field, so that’s how I sort of got started there. There was a junior high school on my way home between my grade school and my home. In the spring, my friends and I would walk through a field to the standards the school left out, and that’s where we would practice doing the high jump and long jump or find a big rock for the shot put and just play around, making up our own games.
Question: What led you to search for a new jumping technique as a sophomore at Medford High School?
Fosbury: I tell the whole story in my new book, The Wizard of Foz. I got into high school after five years of using the scissors technique in the high jump. My track coach explained to me that it just wasn’t an efficient technique. He really pushed me to try to learn the classic style – the straddle technique – that everyone else was using. That’s when I started to work on learning a new style, and that was very difficult to kind of start over. I didn’t have much success with that for the first half of the season. So, I went back to the scissors, and once the bar got to a height that I had never reached, I knew instinctively that I had to do something different. That is when I started to change my body position, adapting to the height of the bar, and it worked. As the bar went higher, I went from a sitting position to more or less a back layout, lying flat on my back over the bar. I improved my height by 6 inches and finished fourth in the meet, so that was the breakthrough.
Question: What was the reaction of others at the meet when you first used the Flop in 1963? What was the reaction in the weeks that followed?
Fosbury: There wasn’t much said by anybody, but they noticed that I was changing every jump that I made. It didn’t attract any attention for another year or two. I had become competitive after once being the worst high jumper on our team and possibly in the state of Oregon. I had merely gotten back into the game. It was a slow process. It took a couple of years to develop and refine from the time I was a sophomore in high school. By the time I was a senior, I finished second at the state championships and won a national junior championship meet. I was showing improvement as I refined my technique, which proved to be important.
Question: How did the naming of the “Flop” come to be? What did you think about it?
Fosbury: Nobody ever asked what the technique was called until I was in college in 1968, some five years later, when I’m starting to compete at a national level. I had won an indoor meet in Oakland, California, where I jumped 7 feet for the first time, and that started to attract some attention. A journalist afterward asked me what I called my technique and I explained that back home in Medford, Oregon, we called it the Fosbury Flop. I basically borrowed that from a caption of a photograph when I was in high school. The editor had described it as “Fosbury flops over the bar.” Medford has the beautiful Rogue River running through it, which is popular for fishing. The context was that when you land a fish, pull it to your boat or on the bank, it makes a flopping action with a sideways bend. So that’s how the name Fosbury Flop came to be.
Question: After starting the “Flop” you improved your best from 5-4 to 5-10, and then to 6-5½ as a senior. Do you believe you could have excelled at such a level without the innovation of your technique?
Fosbury: No, but I was attracted to this event. I also ran high hurdles, but like most kids I tried other events. However, I loved the high jump. I was always tall and it seemed like a natural event for me. If I had not developed a different, more efficient technique, I would not have been competitive. Whether I would have even stayed on the team or have been good enough to be on the team was very debatable, so I did that really as a matter of survival. It was a very competitive environment. During my junior year, we won the state championship in our class so it was a high level of competition within the state and school.
Question: What additional sports or activities did you participate in while attending Medford High School? In what ways did those sports or activities positively impact your efforts in track and field?
Fosbury: I played on the basketball team, which was another sport that I really loved. I loved playing that sport, in addition to competing in track and field. I was also in our choir; I enjoyed being onstage in operettas. In terms of impacting my participation in track and field, we had practices after school, and then if you made the team, we had practices after class on every day of school. Our games were then held on the weekends. The lessons that I learned were how to play hard and compete for a spot on the team. The consistency of training and having healthy exercise every day, six days a week, was really good for any other sport that I competed in. Whether I was going to play basketball or something else, I would have found some sport to participate in. Kids today have a lot of options in our school systems, and I appreciate the parents’ thoughtfulness in giving kids the opportunity to participate.
Question: In what ways have you stayed involved in the sport in recent years?
Fosbury: My life has been blessed because I discovered a technique that I need for myself, and as it turned out, that every kid around the world wanted to try and use. It became adopted as a universal technique. I’ve been involved with coaching coaches and coaching athletes ever since I finished my college education. That’s one of the best things of my life. I really enjoy working with kids, helping to guide them and mentor them. As I finished my engineering career, I started to spend more time developing track clinics for kids. A sports camp is an opportunity to be coached by experts in your sports, which can be a big advantage for kids and parents to utilize in the offseason.
Cody Porter is a graphic arts/communications assistant in the NFHS Publications/Communications Department.