The big jump: a Siberian champion tells his story

Russia's world record high jumper (see cover), in the U.S. for the indoor season, reflects on his early life as a Soviet athlete and tells why men should leap higher yet
February 04, 1963

My sporting career seems simple and natural to me, because scores of other young Soviet men and women advance to big-time sport the same way. For me, it began in the Siberian taiga [bush], where I was born on Apr. 14, 1942, in the village of Tolbuzino, east of Lake Baikal. My father was and still is a coal mining engineer, my mother a mine technician. The hungers and privations of war missed us. Perhaps because of this I was able to grow up strong and healthy. I remember running away from the house and wandering about the forests and swamps for hours as a child. My cherished dream then was not to break world records but to have a shotgun of my own; I pictured myself as a hunter.

I have a vivid memory of my first years at school. We had already moved to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on Sakhalin Island. My dad helped me rig up a chinning bar and flying rings in our yard.

Later, in 1952, when the family moved again, this time to Lugansk in the coal and iron region of the Ukraine, I first became acquainted with track and field while attending the fourth grade of public school 17. Sports were popular there, and school meets were held very often. P.T. classes were far from monotonous. As a matter of fact, it was at these classes that I took an interest in high jumping. It seemed the most graceful of all track and field events to me. I suppose even then I thought coal mining was not for me. My older sister became an electrical engineer, a younger brother is studying to be a builder. The youngest in the family, Igor, hasn't decided yet what he wants to do—but I like athletics.

When vacation time came in the summer of 1956, I talked my parents into leaving me in town, instead of sending me out to a Young Pioneer country camp. The biggest track meets took place in the summertime, and that year I met Pyotr Shein, my first coach. He had seen me jumping—I wasn't very good—and invited me to practice at the Vanguard Junior Sports Training School.

Frankly, those first real workouts were a bit disappointing to me. I thought I'd be tackling the bar from the very beginning, but Shein had me practicing gymnastics, weight lifting and cross-country running. It was boring in the beginning, you can believe me, but I grew healthier and stronger and my clearances grew higher.

It was at this time that I first learned about my future rival, John Thomas. I read in Soviet Sport (our sports daily) that Thomas, a 17-year-old schoolboy, had gone over the bar at 6 feet 7½. I was feeling proud of my own achievement—5 feet 8‚Öû—and I told myself, "You're not so hot."

Thomas didn't know it, but this was the beginning of our rivalry. Just two days before my 17th birthday I jumped 6 feet 6¾, and then at a meet in Moscow on Aug. 13, 1960, I leaped 7 feet 1½ to set a new European high. The jump earned me a trip to the Olympic Games in Rome. The experts, however, were unanimous in predicting a victory for Thomas. Nobody had approached his world record of 7 feet 3¾.

It was in the Italian capital that Thomas and I met for the first time. I was lying on the grass and reading a book at the Olympic Stadium when I looked up and saw a slender athlete come up to the jump sector. I tossed my book aside, picked up my camera and hurried over to take pictures.

Thomas set the bar, called out the height, "6 feet 11½," and went over with ease. He looked at me, smiled, and flew over the height again. I looked on in wonder, and took one shot of him after another. But it turned out that John underestimated his opponents. Robert Shavlakadze (he now bears the title of merited athlete of the U.S.S.R.) won the gold medal. I equaled his clearance of 7 feet 1 to take the silver medal. Thomas had to be content with bronze.

"An accidental defeat," chorused the foreign observers. We met again several months later, in February 1961, when I was invited to the U.S. for the indoor games. I took part in three meets and placed first in each of them. Thomas took second place all three times. I felt sorry for John. The American press had shifted its tone and unleashed a torrent of abuse against their erstwhile idol. This was unfair, of course. I am most grateful for this rivalry with Thomas, because it helped me so. Keen rivalry gives birth to top results. John is a great friend of mine and an outstanding athlete who has not said his last word in the high jump. His physical build is excellent, and, besides, he is most industrious. In my opinion, John has to polish his style and improve his run-up.

Personally, I don't think any special natural gift is necessary to sail over the bar at seven feet or higher. It has been hard work, persevering effort, that has chiefly helped me to attain world class standards. I use the belly-roll or straddle. My present coach, Vladimir Dyachkov, is one of the world's experts in the style.

Some people have asked me whether I've had any ballet training. "You're so light in going over the bar," they say. Well, I've never taken up ballet, although I like to dance and I am a ballet fan and try to see as many Bolshoi performances as possible. As for my lightness in the air, that's due to constant polishing of jumping technique.

I can't say exactly how many times a year I practice, but, in any case, I try not to make any big gap in training, whatever the season of the year. I believe that I have yet to achieve the summit of jumping technique myself, and Dyachkov shares this view. I remember how Dyachkov cut the load in my first workouts with him in 1960. I felt less tired than before, but my clearances continued to climb higher just the same. We paid special attention to the run-up. "Don't concentrate only on the moment of going over the bar," Dyachkov told me. "The foundation for your jump should rest on the ground."

Dyachkov doesn't keep to any set pattern, but varies practice. My workouts differ in content, length of time and tension. A half-hour practice today is followed by a two-and-a-half-hour session tomorrow. One workout is devoted to everything but jumping. I keep away from the jump pit altogether, and, instead, sweat it out with a barbell, raising, squatting and hopping with it, gradually increasing the weight. The next practice is completely taken up with jumping. After limbering up, I clear the bar, say, at 6 feet 4¾. Dyachkov is on the sidelines, noting everything on his pad. He calls me over and we go into a huddle. He advises me to measure the run-up distance again. I resume jumping, clearing 6 feet 6¾, 6 feet 8¾, 6 feet 9½, 6 feet 11 and 7 feet. After each jump I listen to Dyachkov's remarks. I usually don't make any ceiling efforts in practice. My faults are reviewed at the end of the session. Dyachkov will tell me I am planting my takeoff foot too soon, or he will point out that the top of my jump is coming before it should, too far back of the bar before my belly button is over the center.

It really is necessary to practice in other sports in order to show stable results in the high jump. I sprint the 100 meters in 10.7 [equivalent to a 9.8 hundred], put the shot 49 feet and throw the discus 147 feet. My best broad jump was 23 feet 1¼. The barbell and I are particular friends. Weight lifting develops practically the same muscles which send a jumper up. Jumpers, like weight lifters, must be able to concentrate their utmost strength in one quick effort.

Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, who holds the world record in the broad jump, and I traveled to the Carpathian Mountains for our vacation last summer. We pledged not to do any jumping or weight lifting, but really have a rest. Igor's wife, Rita, who came along with us, is a first-class tennis player. We agreed that she would teach us to play. But we soon became bored. With a guilty smile, Igor proposed that we hunt around for a barbell. I laughed and agreed.

Using substantially the same methods as mine, other Soviet jumpers have been quite successful. Yuri Stepanov, who broke the charm over the long-standing national record—6 feet 10½—also bettered the world record with a jump of 7 feet 1. Shavlakadze, of course, was the 1960 Olympic champion. He now has a weak knee and is incapable of jumping as he once did. I am also grateful to my constant rivals at home, Victor Bolshov and Vasily Khoroshilov, who offered me stiff opposition in the summer of 1960. I regard Bolshov as my main Soviet challenger.

One of my finest performances came after I had, in a sense, broken training. That was at Palo Alto, during the Soviet-U.S. meet last year. It was hot, and despite strict orders from our national coach, Gabriel Korobkov, I sneaked off to the swimming pool. I felt a bit stiff and unsure of myself making my first jumps. Measuring the run-up distance again, I realized it was half a foot longer than usual. I made a new mark and my jumps improved at once. The crowd cheered me, and eventually the judges raised the bar to 7 feet 5. I felt everything was going all right as I sailed up and over. True, I touched the bar and it quivered, but it did not fall. This was a marvelous moment for me.

I surprised myself and almost everybody else when I broke the world record again on September 29 at my school championships at Lenin Stadium in Moscow. I had been at the Tretyakov Art Gallery in the morning and had attended lectures at the Moscow Physical Culture Institute in the early afternoon. The stands were crowded with football fans, who had come to watch a league game and stayed on for the track and field program. The weather was good, and my initial clearances built up my confidence. I decided to have a try at 7 feet 5¼. After measuring the run-up distance carefully, I repeated in my mind all the elements of the jump. I repeated them exactly in reality. Landing in the pit, I looked up, wondering whether I had dislodged the bar. It stayed up!

What about this year? I have read in several papers that I have promised to beat 7 feet 6½ this year. I assure you that I never made such a statement. I did say that 7 feet 6½ can be beaten, and that I'd most probably make an effort to do this. But whether I succeed is something altogether different. Adding even an eighth of an inch is really very tough business.

High jumping won't be my only interest this year. I was married two weeks ago to Marina Larionova, a gymnast who has gone to the Physical Culture Institute with me. We will continue to train there, but we want to get on with our lives too. After my jumping days are over I intend to teach physical education. I like sport very much, but it isn't the only thing in my life. It should, in my opinion, be taken up in one's leisure. Sport is both recreation and joy. I've always objected to the system of professional sport. Incidentally, it doesn't exist in the Soviet Union—every Soviet athlete works in his main profession or his trade.

My New Year's resolutions are to finish my third year at the Institute with excellent marks, see some new plays in Moscow theaters, read more well-written books on various subjects and prove to my stubborn friend, Sergei Lopatin, ex-world record holder in the lightweight division of weight lifting, that I'm a better chess player than he. I also want to help young athletes. Right now I have a very young pen pal, Volodya Kolganov, who has jumped 5 feet 5. Helped by the U.S.S.R.'s physical education program, he will improve. Grade schools and college in my country have classes in almost all sports. Besides, young athletes are trained in junior sports schools and later in sports associations. Their tutors are all experienced men.

I am looking forward to a keen rivalry with Joe Faust and Gene Johnson and, of course, John Thomas. I know that Faust has already cleared 7 feet 1, and that Johnson is just behind him, although he keeps to the outdated Western roll style. I hope that our rivalry will see my indoor record of 7 feet 4½ fall. There is no reason why it shouldn't.



Joe Faust, the young Californian who has this year said that he hopes to jump 7 feet 4 or 7 feet 5, is one of several high jumpers who can kick the crossbar of a football goal post, but they all do it with a straight leg. Valeri Brumel can achieve the same result with a bent leg. "This," says Charles Coker, a coach of the Los Angeles Striders and one of the world's foremost high jump authorities, "shows the power Brumel is able to develop in the upper thigh. He has done this through his extensive weight program and his intense desire to achieve greatness."

Coker likens Brumel to Parry O'Brien, who revolutionized the shot put, and Cornelius Warmerdam, who perfected the pole vault technique. "Brumel," he says, "is stronger than any of our top jumpers—John Thomas, Faust or Gene Johnson. As a 16-year-old weight lifter, he could press 35 pounds more than his body weight. That is tremendous. But he also has great speed. His approach to the bar is the fastest of any jumper I have ever seen. Because of his strength, Brumel is able to convert that forward momentum into upper thrust unparalleled in the world. When he slams that foot down for the takeoff, you don't realize the impact until you study it in slow-motion films. Brumel does it so quickly that it is deceiving."

Jim Tuppeny, assistant to Coach Jumbo Elliott at Villanova, says that after Brumel plants his left foot he leans back on his leg, coiling it like a whip, then rocks from heel to ball to toe and explodes upward. Using a combination straddle-dive technique, Brumel ducks his head in toward the bar—most jumpers carry their heads higher—making his leap look neat and compact. "The trailing leg," Tuppeny says, "is no problem with Brumel. With his speed, he is actually sailing. His center of gravity is very low and he just wraps himself around the bar, all very quick."

Thomas, by contrast, practically walks up to the bar, then nearly stops dead in front of it before lifting off. Coker is confident that Thomas, who is 6 feet 5 inches tall, could regain the world record if he would adopt the 6-foot Brumel's training methods and adjust them to his style. One American jumper who relied on speed and strength—5-foot-8 Clinton Larson of Utah—had amazing success back in 1916, when he jumped 6 feet 8. "But Thomas has the most potential of anyone today," says Coker. "He will have to generate great enthusiasm, however, punish himself with work, adopt a weight program and get himself lean and whip hard."

Other Americans who could eventually press Brumel are Faust, a 16-year-old New York schoolboy, Del Benjamin, who has already gone over 6 feet 7¼ and is now switching from the western roll to the straddle, and, surprisingly, Ralph Boston, the broad jumper. "Boston," Coker believes, "could develop into a high jumper who could press anyone in the world. He jumped 7 feet last year in practice. He has the talent. All he needs is the time and the willingness to sacrifice the broad jump."

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)