The tall (6 feet 4¾) youngster stood very still, his body slightly bent, right foot forward. The only sound in Madison Square Garden was the hum of the ventilation system struggling with the smoky air; the 15,000 people at the Millrose Games sat tensely. The bar on the high-jump standards was at seven feet, and no one, ever, anywhere, had high-jumped seven feet indoors before. The crowd waited.
When the boy began his run, his steps were clearly audible across the board floor—thup, thup, thup, thup, thupthupthup. He lifted hard, the long body coming up in an easy, clean motion, rolling briefly, then suddenly down and the bar firm on the standards at seven feet.
The crowd erupted in a volcano of noise. John Thomas looked up at the bar, at his world-record jump, then hopped in excitement, his usually phlegmatic face lit by a wide grin. He was to fail three times later at 7 feet 1¼ inches but it didn't much matter. He was only 17, there was plenty of time.
Away from the circus atmosphere of the indoor track meets, John Curtis Thomas is a painfully shy Boston University freshman. His dormitory is Miles Standish Hall and as he left it one afternoon last week, a few days before his triumph in the Millrose Games, he acknowledged, with a diffident smile and a brief hand motion, the greetings of the students in the lobby. With a companion he crossed the street, slushy from a recent snow and went into the English Grill Room of the Hotel Kenmore.
February 9, 1959
He studied the menu carefully, item by item. Asked what his favorite dish was, he said, seriously, "I like food, period." Then he settled on steak, well done, a cup of split-pea soup and a glass of milk. He considered clams briefly, asked the waitress if they were fried.
"No," she said.
He shuddered. "No, thank you."
He was in the midst of final examinations. "I have two C's, so far," he said, around the steak. "Biology and speech. I got English, hygiene and psychology coming up. Psychology's the toughest. I'm not going to do very well in that exam. I don't understand the work."
Thomas was wearing a loose-fitting, dark gray tweed jacket—ivy league cut—a white shirt and a thin blue tie, firmly knotted. He is a handsome boy; his face is quiet and sensitive, and the eyes are oddly mature. Told that Ed Flanagan, Thomas' coach, had said that he is sure to make the American team in the next Olympics, Thomas moved uncomfortably in his chair, embarrassed.
"It would be nice," he said. "I can't say for sure whether I will or not. A lot can happen. I don't know."
Gratefully, he left the Olympics as a topic of conversation. He reads a lot and, naturally, everything he can find on track. When he is not studying a track encyclopedia, he reads a book called Evolution in Man with enormous interest. He enjoys the movies. When he talks about music, his face is transformed from its customary thoughtful—almost melancholy—cast into the face of a happy boy. Progressive jazz, cha-cha-cha, sambas. "It's nice," he said happily.
Back in his room after lunch he put a Japanese record on his phonograph, filling the dark room with the tinkly precision of Japanese music. On the wall is a Japanese flag and an American flag and a Japanese print showing a hurdler with his feet and body coming ghostlike into the finish. Thomas toured Japan with an American track team last summer, and he was enchanted by the country. "I wish you could see what it is like there," he said. "Everything is so different. I was so lucky to see it. I've never seen anything so pretty. Everything is small, as though it had been made up. The people are nice and friendly, and they come to track meets in the tens of thousands."
Thomas' interest in track began in high school, the famed Rindge Tech in Cambridge, Mass., whence came Olympic Champion Charlie Jenkins and many other track and field stars. "We knew we were going out for track," Thomas said, "because we were better at that than football or baseball." He credits his high school coach, Tom Duffy, with much of his development, but he feels that his style has profited from a training device he started under Flanagan, the field events coach at Boston University. Flanagan has him lifting 350-pound bar bells with his legs, and it has given him a good deal more power. He considers Flanagan an inspired coach and works for him with a sense of dedication and a firm belief that what Flanagan says is gospel.
He reviews Flanagan's precepts in the tense moments before he starts his approach for a jump.
"I try to tell myself just what I'm going to do. I tell myself about my faults and how I can correct them. I say 'John, you stop ducking your head into the bar. Stop kicking into it. Get parallel with it.' And other times I tell myself to practice. Practice. That's what corrects your faults, builds your body up."
He flicked off the record player. "You know when you've made a good jump," he said. "Everything closes down. You feel good. You know it's a good jump before you land."
Thomas takes occasional student jobs, such as working in the projection booth of the Visual Aids Department. In the summer he works at a boy scout camp called Quinapoxet in Rindge, N.H. He has 17 or 18 merit badges and is an Explorer scout. "There's fun in being a scout," he said. "Even if you are a man, it's fun. I like to camp out and cook over a fire and then just lie on the ground and talk to my friends or maybe just think."
Thomas works for the head chef at Camp Quinapoxet, a man named Bill Dalton. He speaks of Dalton with a warm affection. "When there's work to be done with old Bill," he said, "you get it done. But then when there's time to sit around and relax, it's cheerful. Sometimes he teases me like saying 'Now you watch out, John Thomas, you've been loafing of late and I'm going to fire you.' You know that kind of teasing, nothing harmful, nothing you could feel hurt over."
Thomas thought about Bill Dalton a minute, then he looked up at the clock. "Gee," he said, "look at the time. Here I am daydreaming. I've got to get to practice."
He went off through the gray late day, walking very quickly with a springy stride.
Don Bragg, a handsome, extraordinarily muscular private from Fort Dix, broke through his personal ceiling in the pole vault and set a new Millrose Games record when he cleared 15 feet 6½ inches. Bragg would like to play Tarzan in the movies, but only after he sets a new pole vault world record. "Last year they said I was a fat slob," he said, explaining his new, trim condition. They? "The critics," said PFC Bragg, looking ahead to his movie career, no doubt.