07/15/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
It's called the Fosbury Flop, but the creator of today's standard high-jump technique says a more accurate name might be the Fosbury Fluke. In 1963, Dick Fosbury was a gangly and slightly uncoordinated sophomore at Oregon's Medford High trying to master a high-jump scissors maneuver called the straddle. He couldn't get the hang of it, so his coach told him to improvise. In the bus on the way to a meet, Fosbury decided to try his own approach: He turned his back to the bar, then flipped his head and shoulders over first and jumped 5'10"—surprising everyone, not least himself. By the time of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Fosbury had perfected the Flop. Still, stepping out on the field, he was so nervous he felt like he was "marching to the lions." The stadium went silent during his winning jump of 7'4¼". "I knew I had it once I was past my hips," he recalls. "My eyes were wide; they were spinning. I was ecstatic."
After the Olympics, Fosbury returned to Oregon State, where he had earlier flunked out. "Having attention and success was difficult," he recalls. "Coaches don't teach you how to be a winner, and I had a difficult time with that." Ready or not, he was a talk show celebrity, but he was also a college kid worrying about bills (sponsors and a pro circuit were not post-Olympic perks back then). It was almost a blessing when his celebrity faded and he graduated with an engineering degree in 1972. Now 49 and divorced, he's an engineer and surveyor in Ketchum, Idaho, where he shares custody of his son, Erich, 13. Still thin and gangly, Fosbury works out at the Sun Valley Athletic Club. Few of the regulars know his history. Recently, a local ski instructor was stunned to learn the identity of the gawky guy in the corner of the gym. "I can't believe I'm looking at an Olympic athlete's body," the man said. "I don't feel so bad."