John Thomas of Boston University stepped gracefully out onto the floor of the Boston Garden before 10,000 spectators at last Saturday's Knights of Columbus track meet, first big meet of the 1960 season. A year before he had been the precocious 17-year-old sensation of the track world, the first man ever to jump seven feet indoors, a world-record-breaker (the picture at the right shows the historic moment last February at the U.S. indoor championships when Thomas cleared 7 feet 1¼ inches, the highest jump ever, indoors or out), the most exciting athlete to emerge in track and field since the arrival of supermiler Herb Elliott. He was America's bright new hope against the Russians in the dual meet scheduled for Philadelphia last July and a red-hot future-book favorite for the Olympics.
Then he suffered a serious injury when his left foot, the foot he takes off from, was ripped and torn in an
elevator accident. He underwent a delicate operation, had skin grafts. He missed the entire outdoor track season, including the dual meet with the Russians, and not until the fall did rumors come out of Boston that John Thomas was jumping again.
When the rumors came, they came thick and fast. Thomas was jumping seven feet in practice, it was reported. No comment, said Boston University Track Coach Doug Raymond. He had cleared 7 feet 2 in practice. No comment, said Raymond's assistant, Field Events Coach Ed Flanagan.
The only clear facts were these: Ed Flanagan said Thomas was just about as good as ever; the track fan himself would not find out if this was so until Thomas jumped in the K of C games, his first competition since his injury 10 months earlier.
And so, last Saturday night, Ed Flanagan wished his charge good luck and sent him into action. And John
Curtis Thomas, high jumper extraordinary, went out and jumped, without missing once, 6 feet 2½, 6 feet 4½, 6 feet 6½, 6 feet 8½, 6 feet 10½ and, finally, smashingly, 7 feet l½. He had come back.
IN JOHN'S SHADOW
And this fact utterly overshadowed the other events of a meet that was unusually good for so early in the season. Tom Murphy, the U.S. 800-meter champion, was caught napping in the stretch and was beaten by Yale's Tom Carroll in a fast (2:09.2) 1,000-yard run. Jim Stack, Carroll's teammate at Yale, ran away with the 600. Chicago's Phil Coleman, after toiling in the shadow of Ron Delany for so many years, tasted sweet victory in the mile. Don Bragg, his eye on the Olympics, did 15 feet 4 inches in the pole vault. Leonard (Buddy) Edelen, an unheralded distance man from Minnesota, ran the favored Deacon Jones into the ground in the three-mile race to win in the excellent early-season time of 13:58. Olympic Champion Lee Calhoun won the hurdles.
But the important thing was that John Thomas was back, fit and in the mood for an aggressive push toward a gold medal at Rome. It didn't really matter that Thomas missed three times at 7 feet 2¼ inches. He was almost as impressive in the brilliant near misses at that would-be world-record height, which gave promise of sensational jumps to come, as he was in clearing 7 feet½ inch.
John Thomas' great potential was first glimpsed when he was in high school, at Rindge Tech in Cambridge, Mass. He had been jumping with an old-fashioned belly-roll style, but at the urging of his coach, Tom Duffy, he switched to the straddle roll he uses today. It took an entire year for Thomas to acquire the new technique and occasionally, almost in despair at ever learning it, he reverted to the belly roll. But Duffy discovered that Thomas was ambitious—"he was always fighting to be the best." Duffy persevered with his teaching, and Thomas learned.
Before he was out of high school he jumped 6 feet 8¼ and earned a trip to Japan with a touring AAU track and field group. There he jumped 6 feet 10‚Öù. That autumn he entered Boston University, a few miles down the Charles River from Rindge Tech, came under the guidance of Raymond and Flanagan and became famous. He set a new world indoor record of 6 feet 11¾ in his first big indoor meet, broke that with his first seven-foot jump and broke that with his winning jump in the national indoor championships. Then he injured his foot—the foot that is to high jumping what Birgitt Nilsson's vocal cords are to Wagnerian opera.
When he left the hospital last May 17 Thomas took things very easy for a while. Then he began to do a bit of swimming and sunning at a New Hampshire Boy Scout camp. Back in Boston, he commenced some tentative running and weight lifting.
On August 26 he jumped for the first time after the injury. He reached 6 feet 3. Two days later it was a solid 6 feet 5. Heavier exercise followed when he worked out as a guest with the Boston University football team in camp at Peterborough, N.H. When the school term opened he reduced his daily training sessions to 45 minutes and began to hit the books; he had dropped out of school after the injury and is now just finishing his second freshman semester. But even at 45 minutes a day he began to push back up toward 7 feet.
Intrigued by some of the rumors about his practice jumps, a visitor met Thomas with considerable awe last week in Myles Standish Hall on the Boston University campus. For all his youth and height (he is 6 feet 5½ inches tall now and weighs 194 pounds, compared to 6 feet 4¾ and 185 last winter), Thomas is an easy-moving fellow and carries himself with a shy sort of dignity. His wary eyes are unblinking in a strong, triangular face. Yes, he was keen to win an Olympic medal. "It would be an honor just to go." Yes, he had given advice to teen-agers at church and scout meetings. What advice? "Oh, I probably told them to lead a good life. Try to keep occupied. Try to get through school."
Although Thomas is exceptionally reserved with people he doesn't know, Flanagan says he is really an outgoing boy who mixes easily with his fellow students, and with those he knows well, "a terrific heckler." The relationship between Flanagan and Thomas is a relaxed and friendly one, probably no small factor in Thomas' development into greatness as a high jumper.
Flanagan kept publicity pressure off Thomas during his convalescence by refusing to disclose his jump figures, and he did this even when he was badgered by his good friend Clarence (Ding) Dussault, director of the K of C meet. Flanagan was secretly amused by the extravagant practice heights credited to Thomas by others. The very best he actually did, it seems, was about 6 feet 9—which meant to Flanagan that Thomas was ready for 7 feet in competition. His best practice figure before last year's world record jump was 6 feet 9¼.
Possibly because of this casual environment in training, Thomas appears to be oblivious to pressure. Last week during the suspenseful pre-meet days he moved about the BU campus with seeming unconcern. He demonstrated the steps of a new dance for a couple of classmates, played a few hands of a card game called kitty whist in the barnlike student common, spun a few progressive jazz records in his green-walled fifth-floor dormitory room.
Then it was Saturday night and the Boston Garden.
"He isn't in midseason form," said Ed Flanagan. "His timing may not be just right. But he should be in the neighborhood of 7 feet."
ICICLES AND BUTTERFLIES
To the thousands in the Garden, Thomas' form looked magnificent. After each of the early, effortless jumps, he sat, stretched, walked back and forth and occasionally called up to Flanagan's box for instructions. No competitor on the floor was calmer. ("Nothing bothers John," Flanagan said.) He is an icicle in an event notorious for its psychological havoc. At some level or other the bar becomes a frightening thing for most jumpers. Not for Thomas. The butterflies always go away, he says, after the first jump.
When Thomas jumped he simply let the muscle memory implanted with such care in practice take over from conscious thought. Running toward the bar at an angle of precisely 36° (like all jumpers he does a lot of studying of angles and distances in practice), he took four easy steps ("like a big jungle cat stalking something," said Flanagan), then three staccato ones, dug the spiked heel of his now-healthy left foot into the boards, kicked high with his right leg and rolled over the bar. Only gritty George Dennis of Philadelphia stayed with Thomas through 6 feet 10½. After 7 feet½ inch Thomas was all alone.
At 7 feet 2¼ he flew upward once, twice, three times. Twice he would have made it except for small timing errors at the summit that caused his trailing leg to brush the bar after his body had cleared it.
"Well," said Flanagan, "he had the height. He was up there. We'll just have to improve his timing with practice.
"You know, John had never even seen the bar at that height. I wanted him to take a look at it. I'm confident he'll do 7 feet 2 this winter."