Author: Nicole C. Maloy, W’95
A few times a week during my undergraduate years at Penn, I would run along a curved, “J”-like path, hurl myself backwards over a long, horizontal bar, and land – poof – in an undignified position on an enormous, dusty, blue cushion. Then someone would either cheer for me or yell at me (usually the latter) and I would do it again. And again. And again. Such is the life of a high jumper.
But why do it?
You know, that is an excellent question. High jumping is not exactly a useful skill. There was a TV movie in the ‘80s about legendary American athlete Jesse Owens, whose epic, four-gold-medal-winning performance in Berlin’s 1936 Olympics shattered Hitler’s hopes of proving Aryan supremacy at the Games. Towards the end of the movie, a kid steals a lady’s purse and runs. Nearby, an older Jesse Owens takes off after the kid. Who knows if this was based on a real incident, but I still remember seeing the kid struggle to climb over some pile of debris and keep running. Then, there was the Jesse Owens character, in a business suit, hurdling that same pile in slow motion. The moral of the story? Hurdling is both cool and potentially useful. And don’t run from Jesse Owens.
I’ve tried to come up with scenarios where being an ex-high jumper might come in handy. Here’s what I’ve got: I’m being chased by someone evil. Up ahead of me is a fence, and there are walls on either side, so there’s no way out but over. And the walls are far enough apart that I can run my “J.” And the fence is lower than 5’ 9 ¼” high. And on the other side, there is a big stack of mattresses.
Yeah. I accept that high jumping knowledge doesn’t transfer well. But what I love about my event, and Track and Field in general, is that it’s raw. It’s about the body and what it can do, just because, end of story. How far can you throw? This far. How fast can you run? This fast. How high can you jump? This high. Next question? Few tasks or results in life are so clear, so easily measurable.
The student-athlete experience adds something else to the mix: a special kind of school spirit. On the track or on the field, you are your team, you are your school, and you are identified from afar by your school colors. Student-athletes wear those colors on behalf of their entire university, and the team members who came before them. There’s pride at stake. I became sensitive to certain shades and color combinations within the Ivy League, and it took me years to get to the point where I could wear some of them in public without feeling like I was wearing the uniform of an opposing team.
Other than temporary allergies to rival school colors, what did I learn from my days as a high jumper?
Sometimes there is no middle ground. Either the bar stays up or it doesn’t. Sometimes the wind knocks it over, but usually it’s the jumper. What could I do better next time?
Sometimes you do get a second chance (and a third), but it’s better not to need it. You get three attempts at each height. Room for error is nice, but doing it right the first time saves time and energy for the harder jumps to come (FYI: the bar supports on each side are called “standards,” so the officials are literally “raising the bar” and “setting a higher standard” with each new round. That’s one to grow on).
Sometimes you are capable of more than you think you are. A good coach – or set of coaches – will see where you are able to go, equip you for the journey, challenge you until you arrive, and be there to celebrate with you once you get there. I showed up as a freshman walk-on to the team with a personal best of 5’4”. I left as a Senior Co-Captain with the school record of 5’ 9 ¼”. Who knew? They did. NCAA Division I coaching is nothing to sneeze at if it could get me 5+ inches higher in the air.
Sometimes it’s out of your hands. The outdoor season was always my favorite, though that blasted wind would often mock me by taking down the bar just steps before I reached it. Rain made running on the “J” curve an adventure in trusting the spikes in my heels to keep me from skidding (distinctive to a high jump shoe for this very reason). And you haven’t lived until you’ve landed in the “pit” (the big dusty cushion) after an hour of rain. The weather was out of my control. All I could do was my best to get to – and over – the bar.
Sometimes it’s all in your hands. When conditions are perfect, you’re feeling good, and you have three attempts ahead of you, it’s just you and that bar. It’s personal. However many people are watching, the results of the jump are entirely up to you. Will you rise to the challenge? If so, how high?
You know, maybe high jumping has more transferable knowledge than I gave it credit for.
Hats off to Adria (Ferguson) Sheth, C’97, seated far left in the back row of the above team photo. That super-fast underclassman grew up to fund Penn’s first women’s varsity coaching position endowed in a woman’s name in honor of former Head Coach Betty Costanza, who founded the Women’s Track & Field program at Penn. Let’s have a rousing, sports movie slow clap for Adria. To Betty and Assistant Coach Tony Tenisci, I love you both forevah for putting up with me, and for teaching me to fly, a few seconds at a time. Thanks for pushing me to push myself harder. Thanks also to Dick Fosbury for being the good kind of crazy. Enjoy this Visa commercial narrated by Morgan Freeman about the radical “Fosbury Flop” method of high jumping that revolutionized the sport. Aside: if the “Go World” Olympics ads don’t move you, you have no soul. This is the one that gets me every time. OK, and this one. And this one, this one, and this one. But anyway, back to Dick Fosbury….