There will come a time when to win, you must reinvent the game. In business, sports and life, there always comes a time when a maverick decides that the way things “have always been done” aren’t the most effective ways. They shatter misconceptions and quite literally flip an industry on its head by changing the way things are done. It is never the easiest path, but sometimes, it is the one that is necessary in order to win.
Dick Fosbury was anything but an elite athlete. My guess is that if you were picking teams in any sport, he would be a “bottom two” pick. He sat the bench all through high school in basketball. He played third-string on the school’s football team. Dick was best at blending into the sidelines at events. But like most high schoolers, he had a passion for sports. It just so happened that his passion was track and the high jump.
At 6’4, he had the height and enough vertical jump to be dangerous at the high jump. But he couldn’t clear the opening height of 5 feet to qualify for any high school meet. Dick was only 16 and a sophomore – it was a time when most would submit to limitations and just chalk it up to “not being created for sports.” But Dick was not “most kids.” Despite being unable to clear the 5’ opening height at this first track meet, he continued to follow his coaches’ instructions of jumping forward over the bar. It was the “only” way to high jump. In fact, everyone jumped forward over the bar except for a few who would “scissor” kick the height, similar to leaping over a hurdle. After failing on every attempt at his first meet, Dick knew he had only one more chance before being relegated to third-string in the sport he loved.
Out of desperation, Dick tried jumping over the bar by twisting his body with a half-scissor, half leap backwards up and over the bar. Jumpers and coaches gathered around to watch this scrawny kid come out of nowhere, jumping like no one they had ever seen before, yet continuing to clear mark after mark. Rival coaches were diving into rule books after Dick cleared 5’10”. Nothing in the rules prevented him from jumping over the bar backwards – it had just never been done before. Dick had reinvented the technique needed to reach new heights in the sport. He continued to hone his craft, year after year, eventually earning a college scholarship after winning the national junior championship with a jump of 6’7”. People were calling his move the “Flop,” but despite the increased attention, it still hadn’t caught on elsewhere.
It wasn’t until the 1968 that Dick Fosbury’s “Flop” took the world by storm. No one expected anything out of this goofy, Oregon kid who “flopped” over the high jump bar. The next to last featured Dick and fellow American Ed Caruthers clearing 7’2”, but Dick cleared it on his first jump and Caruthers took three attempts to match. Four hours into the event, the crowd stood on its feet filled with electricity as the two jumpers prepared for a U.S. and Olympic record jump of 7’4.25”. Both men missed their first two jumps. Then, on his third attempt Dick cleared the height with his amazing, backwards leap. Caruthers couldn’t match.
In capturing the gold medal that day, Dick Fosbury changed the entire sport of high jumping. By sticking to his gut and continuing to focus on what he excelled at – jumping backwards – Dick became a legend in Olympic history. His story is a powerful reminder of those who choose to press onward, unafraid to follow the crowd. Sometimes, to capture that elusive goal, you have to change the game entirely.