Canada's best high jumper, the willowy figure floating over the bar at left, is 23-year-old Debbie Brill from Aldergrove, B.C. She is one of her nation's brightest hopes for a track and field medal, and by rights she should be suffering under enormous pressure. If she were to win, it would be the first individual gold medal for a Canadian female since Ethel Catherwood cleared 5'3" in 1928 in Amsterdam. The last gold medal any Canadian won in track and field was Duncan McNaughton's in the high jump in 1932. And at the Munich Games the Canadian track team failed to win a single medal of any description. In view of this bleak history it is not difficult to imagine how much Canada, the host, would like Debbie Brill to win. Or place or show, for that matter.
However, Debbie Brill remains remarkably calm. She has been a world-class high jumper since she was 16 and she has been through it before. "The pressure is there, but you can avoid it," she said a few weeks ago as she dropped ice cubes into a jar of cranberry juice. She stood in the kitchen of a borrowed house high in the hills above Santa Barbara, Calif., where she has been living, training and avoiding pressure for the last six months. The day was hot and the cranberry juice was for her daily workout that was soon to begin on the training track of the University of California at Santa Barbara, down the hill near the ocean.
Under the concerned eye of her coach, Lionel Pugh, a stocky, redheaded man in his 50s who has headed the national teams of both Great Britain and Canada, the 5'9½", graceful, brown-eyed Brill has been running, sprinting, bounding, hopping, lifting and above all jumping, in sunshine, peace and privacy, since January. Her Southern California sojourn has given her a deep tan, and the weights and the bounding have made her thighs positively pneumatic.
"It's the kind of training I've wanted to do for a long time," said Brill. "Before, I didn't train, I just jumped. This kind, grinding it in, makes good consistent jumping."
July 18, 1976
Debbie Brill is a country girl who grew up in the tiny farming communities of the Fraser River Valley east of Vancouver, at times attending schools too small to field a team for a game of anything. Running, jumping and hurdling were logical alternatives. Jumping, especially, came easy to her, and she gradually evolved her own technique, a sort of lateral backward bending over the bar. On her first trip abroad with a national team at the age of 15 she was nearly, laughed out of an Oslo stadium when 8,000 Norwegians got their first look at the Brill Bend. Later that year, in Mexico City, Dick Fosbury flopped his way to a gold medal and the laughter died.
When Brill was 16, she became the first female in the Western Hemisphere to clear six feet. But by the time she was 18, everything had gone haywire. Feeling out of sync with herself, her sport and life in general, she dropped out of the University of British Columbia after three months and out of training for most of the next 2½ years. "I hated track," she says. "I didn't understand it or myself. I couldn't handle the pressures. When people said, 'Oh, aren't you Debbie Brill?' it freaked me out. I felt I was losing touch with everyday people. I felt I was too much a jock and not enough a person."
At virtually the last moment—April, 1972—she decided she wanted to go to Munich after all, "only because I couldn't think what else to do." She went back into training for a few months, made the Canadian team, and although she was in good enough shape to jump 6'1¼" in London a few weeks before the Games, she fared poorly in Munich, finishing eighth at 5'11½". "I went through it, but I wasn't part of it," she says now. "I kept watching all those people and wondering, 'What am I doing here?' "
The Munich experience only made things worse, and this time she quit, seemingly for good. She began traveling here and there in the States and British Columbia, working when she had to and, as she puts it, "just living a sort of life, trying to learn a lot of things." She lived on a subsistence farm near Vanderhoof in central British Columbia, she washed dishes in a hotel in Boston Bar in the Fraser River Canyon, and she worked at the conveyor belt of a produce cannery in Maple Ridge ("There were women there who'd been there for 30 years!").
Finally, in the fall of 1974, now enrolled at the University of Victoria, she lived in a tent on Vancouver Island, cooking over an open fire and studying math by flashlight. She had not set foot on a track since September 1972, but with two years remaining till Montreal, she was ready to begin again. "It was growing up, I guess," she says. "Things fell into place. I had hated leaving it unfinished, knowing I had never done it properly. Now I was able to approach it the way it should have been done."
For one year she went to classes and worked out on her own. Then, last summer, she turned to her old coach, Pugh, for help. Pugh outlined a series of bio-mechanical progressions for her to follow and made her realize that she could work much harder. In April, at the Mount Sac Relays in Walnut, Calif., she jumped 6'2¾", her best and the equal of Joni Huntley's American record. The world record, held by Rosemarie Ackermann of East Germany, is still 2½" away.
It is possible that if Brill had not walked out of the arena four years ago Canada would have a better shot than it does at its first track and field gold since 1932. But Debbie at 23 is onto something else. "The goal," she says, "is not a certain height and it's not winning something. It's just doing it right and as well as you can."
Brill may not strike gold, but 389 others will. For the favorites in events from archery to yachting.