It was late Wednesday in Burbank, Calif., a couple of days before the Los Angeles Times indoor track meet. In a makeup room adjoining an NBC television studio, Johnny Carson was mildly concerned about the health of Dwight Stones, the high jump world-record holder who was about to demonstrate his lofty art for a taping of Carson's Tonight Show.
"I saw on the monitors what you were doing in rehearsal," Carson said, referring to a 6'9" jump Stones had made, which broke Dick Fosbury's Tonight Show record. "You made it look so easy, but you're not really going to do that on the air, are you?"
"Not only that," Stones said, "but dig this: I'm going to jump over you."
And despite the handicaps of little time and a shortened runway, Stones did sail over Carson during the show and then proceeded to clear seven feet shortly after Carson signed off. One of these days Stones is going to soar over King Kong, assuming a promoter can figure out the proper pay scale for an outsized gorilla. Anything less would be an unworthy climax to Stones' performance this indoor season, which has combined sporadic frustration with the best wintertime jumping of his career.
February 17, 1975
Accomplishment and frustration peaked together at the Times meet last Friday night. Earlier in the season Stones had twice broken the indoor world record, first in Pocatello, Idaho, when he did 7'5" to surpass the famous 7'4½" mark set 14 years ago by the Soviet Union's Valery Brumel. The very next night in Los Angeles, Stones broke the record again, moving it up to 7'5¼". He tried to go higher the following week in the San Francisco Examiner Invitational but other events delayed the start of the high jump for more than an hour, and the best he could do was a new meet record of 7'3½". The next night in Portland he jumped 7'3¾" off a difficult surface and declined to try anything higher. "That's enough," he said. "I'm really pooped. Going for 7'4" in this place is like 7'6" anywhere else." In the Millrose Games in New York a week after that, he had trouble with his timing, with his footing, with distractions. He missed several jumps and lost after making 7'2".
Now, in Los Angeles, everything felt good. He had been exuberant all week and had cheerfully predicted he would do 7'7" in the Times meet, a height no one had reached indoors or out. Stones' outdoor world record is 2.30 meters, or 7'6½".
He and Tom Woods of Oregon State cleared 7'2½" and were the only ones left in the competition. Woods missed all three times at 7'4", and when Stones cleared that height on his last try he was the winner of the event. Now the bar was moved up to 7'5½", a quarter of an inch better than his indoor record. The officials measured the distance from the bar to the floor to be sure and said it was actually an eighth of an inch more than the announced height. Stones tried once and missed. The bar was reset. Tall, fair, strong-looking, Stones waited at the top of his run. It was past midnight and from a crowd of 16,400 only a few thousand high-jump freaks, as Stones calls them, were still in the arena. Stones raced for the bar, leaped, twisted, floated over the bar on his back and landed in the pit. There was an explosive roar from the stands. Stones had cleared the standard easily. A new world record, the P.A. system blared.
The officials measured again, as the rules require, to verify that it was indeed a record. And announced, with chagrin and embarrassment, that it was not. The tape said it was only 7'5‚Öú", an eighth less than the required 7'5½", and it would be listed as 7'5¼", according to IAF rules, which allow an inch to be split only into quarters.
Stones was furious. "How can the bar drop a quarter of an inch when I didn't touch it?" he demanded. "That was the best jump I ever made in my entire life. At my plant, before I went up in the air, I thought, 'That's it! What a jump!' If the bar had been at 7'7", I would not have touched it. Never in my life have I had one click like that.
"It's unbelievable. I've been jumping for these officials for five years here in the Los Angeles arena. How come they weren't more careful when I was going for a world record?"
No one was able to explain the gaffe. The bar was raised to 7'7", and Stones took three stabs at that height, all unsuccessful. "How could I get psyched for 7'7" after all that?" he said. "I was a basket case. You don't come back after something like that.
"I don't like to get upset like this," he added, "but this is the most important thing in the world to me."
Stones credits his superlative performances this winter to his own new attitude toward life, competition and people in general. "I've changed tons in the past year," he says, a claim that the track-and-field community may find hard to credit. The old Stones was no bargain. He was obviously callow, given to outrageous boasting and rude behavior. His critics called him a petty troublemaker caught up in an all-consuming love affair with himself.
They may be astonished to learn that Stones reached sad agreement with such opinion last spring and decided to do something about it. Now a venerable 21, he seems mentally attuned to his craft and at ease with almost everything in track, except, of course, bumbling officials.
"I've gotten to the point where I don't devote all my life to trying to be obnoxious," he says. "I've tried to adopt the philosophy that if you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all, because it's not good to throw negative statements around all the time.
"I know I kept rubbing people the wrong way. Finally I realized, 'Hey, what are you doing to yourself?' I didn't want a majority of the people at a track meet to be sitting there hoping I'd lose. There'll be enough people cheering against me anyhow. Why give them more ammunition?"
Stones credits his mother with making him take a harsher look at himself. One result of their discussion was that Stones went back to UCLA last spring for a talk with Track Coach Jim Bush. The two had parted less than friends in 1972 after Stones had become bored with classroom work and unhappy with the financial assistance he was receiving—a job he felt was beneath the status of an Olympic bronze medal winner. "The talk ended up as an apology to Bush," Stones says, "because I felt pretty bad about things. We're on very good terms now." At present Stones is enrolled at Long Beach State. He says he plans to make the best of "this last stab" at an education.
"I had a closed mind about it a year ago," he says. "Now I realize that if I go for a job against another guy who's better qualified academically, I'm going to get snuffed. I won't let that happen."
Beyond his new attitude, an indication that this indoor season could become Stones' finest came last summer when he had his best overall European tour (he set his world record in Munich in 1973). Even so, the tour produced one of his greatest frustrations.
"In Berlin," he says, "I had a 7'7" jump for eight seconds. I made the jump, and the bar looked like it was hardly even moving. The 20,000 people who had moved down by the high-jump pit were going crazy. I put my arms up in our Pacific Coast Club salute, dropped them, put them up again—and then the bar fell off. I couldn't believe it."
Such disappointments are part of the discipline of high jumping, as Stones has learned. At Portland this year he was able to cope with conditions that were far from ideal: the floor changes in both color and resiliency at the takeoff point. Before the meet Stones felt he might lose. Afterward, he said, "Last year that floor just blew my mind. I had two misses at 6'6" and made only 6'11". I think it reflects my new attitude that I wouldn't let it get to me this time. I said, 'Wait a minute. That isn't going to happen tonight.' " It didn't.
Stones' prime target is the 1976 Olympic Games. He says, "I'd love to dominate the Olympics so completely that second place is four inches behind me. I'd like to jump 7'8½" at Montreal. As for people, I don't want them to judge me by what they've heard. I'm coming around. The kid is growing up. I feel like I've been redeemed.
"I want to do the best I can for my sport. I don't want a bad attitude to get in my way. I don't have the supreme self-confidence I used to have, but I haven't finished under 7'2" all season."
At one meet Stones took time before his own winning jump to offer a pointer or two to Oregon State freshman Mark Wilson, who had done 7'1" indoors. "I told him that when you've gone 85 inches in the air, 86 is nothing. I told him all he had to do was relax more. That's what I've done."
And what about the record? When will he challenge it again?
"Who knows?" he said after the Times meet. "Outdoors, probably. I never felt so good in my life as I did tonight. I'll have to go on Johnny Carson again to feel this good."