Dick Fosbury was an American high jumper from Medford, Oregon.
He wasn’t the most athletic.
He wasn’t the most naturally gifted.
He certainly wasn’t the best.
In High School he struggled to make the qualifying height of 1.50 m for various competitions.
Growing up in the early 1960s, he was taught the standard technique of that era, the straddle.
This is where jumpers would run in, leap forwards head-first, and straddle their legs as they rolled face-down over the bar.
It was a tricky maneuver that Fosbury struggled to master.
It also limited the speed with which you could run to the bar.
With the straddle, Fosbury noted that his centre of gravity was higher than the bar.
This meant he needed to expend a greater amount of energy to pull his weight over it.
He realised that if he could lower his centre of gravity, he should theoretically be able to jump much higher.
So rather than just continuing with the accepted technique, Fosbury began experimenting during his High School years.
The more he tried, the more convinced he was that he’d been approaching the high jump from completely the wrong direction.
Rather than running straight towards the bar, he took a curved run and approached from a near parallel position.
His also discovered that he shouldn’t be jumping forwards, but rather backwards.
By leaping backwards from a side-on position, Fosbury was able to progressively arch his shoulders, back, and legs as he cleared the bar.
This meant he was able to jump over the bar whilst keeping his centre of gravity well below it.
It was the perfect recipe for success.
Having struggled with jumps of 1.50 m, Fosbury was now clearing heights over 1.9 m.
He even broke his High School record with a jump of 1.969 m.
A local newspaper reported his achievements and they branded his unusual technique as The Fosbury Flop.
Because his style reminded the journalist of how fish would flop around after being caught on the banks of the local river.
After graduating from High School he went to College and began clearing jumps over two metres.
In the 1968 NCAA Championships he went on to win with a jump of 2.197 m.
That same year, he also won the U.S. Olympic trials and secured his place at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
But not everyone was convinced.
He had been branded ‘The World’s Laziest High Jumper’ for his ungainly style.
His first jumps at the 1968 Olympics were met with bewilderment and he was considered something of a novelty.
The world hadn’t seen anything like it before.
Endearingly cheered by the Mexican crowds, everyone soon realised Fosbury and his Flop were the real deal.
As the competition progressed, his competitors were unable to keep up with the ever increasing heights.
And sure enough, Fosbury soon found himself in the final three.
He was guaranteed an Olympic medal.
With the bar set at 2.22 m, Fosbury cleared it at his first attempt.
Fellow American, Ed Caruthers, manged to clear the bar on his second jump.
Valentin Gavrilov of the Soviet Union failed on all three of his jumps.
Fosbury had now secured a silver medal at the very least.
As the bar was raised to 2.24 m, both U.S. and Olympic records were on the line.
Ed Caruthers failed on all his jumps.
Fosbury had failed on his first two attempts.
But on his third, he cleared the bar.
Dick Fosbury was Olympic champion.
He had broken the U.S. record.
He had broken the Olympic record.
He had won the gold medal.
By refusing to accept what everyone else was doing, Fosbury had become the best high jumper in the world.
He questioned existing practices and challenged himself to find a better way.
He wasn’t afraid of what others thought.
When they tried to convince him otherwise, he refused to go back to his old habits.
He experimented. He failed. He tried again.
And eventually, he innovated.
The Fosbury Flop is now the globally accepted high jump technique.
Since 1980, all World Records have been set using it.
Including the current WR of 2.45 m achieved by Javier Sotomayor in 1993.
So what habits and routines are you accepting?
Have you questioned whether there is a better way?
Are you willing to challenge yourself to innovate for the better?
Dick Fosbury did.
And he didn’t just win Olympic gold.
He completely revolutionised his field of work.
The Fosbury Flop: Footage from the 1968 Olympic High Jump Finals in Mexico City
Header image via hdimagesnwall.com.