One night two summers ago Jerome Carter and his buddies snuck into the pool of an exclusive housing complex in Edgewood, Md. for a midnight swim. The others settled for a quick dip and left, but Carter dallied to work on his backstroke. It was only after a bright light shone in his eyes and a gruff voice shouted, "Hold it!" that Carter realized his predicament. He sprang out of the water and bounded off a chaise longue, clearing the top of an eight-foot barbed-wire fence by inches. The man with the flashlight watched incredulously.
Which is about how the track establishment has reacted to Carter, a student at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Md. these last couple of months. He had nowhere to go but up when in December he began high-jumping on the indoor track circuit. He was just 19 and had been out of the sport for a year and a half after breaking his right ankle at a high school track meet. After that mishap Carter had figured he'd never jump again. "I just no longer even thought about jumping," he says, and who could argue with an athlete who has two steel pins in his ankle?
But he changed his mind, and at his very first meet, the Towson (Md.) State Invitational on Dec. 18, the 6'1" Carter equaled his personal best of 6'11", even though he was competing in a borrowed pair of running shoes two sizes too small. Two weeks later at the Towson Holiday Relays, he leaped 7'4", an extraordinary achievement, considering he was wearing those same borrowed shoes. Two weeks after that, at a meet in Fairfax, Va., finally wearing regulation high jump shoes, he cleared 7'7", equaling the third-best indoor jump ever by an American and falling a scant 1½ inches shy of the world record of the Soviet Union's Vladimir Yashchenko. And observers say Carter made his 7'7" with three inches to spare.
Understandably, Carter had doubters at first. But when word got out that he had barely missed 7'11" during practice in a cramped Harford Community auxiliary gym, where he was limited to less than half his normal approach run, track and field folk began to understand what a phenomenon he is. "Pure, raw talent," says Bob Hersh, TAC records chairman. "Untamed and unsmoothed."
Carter disarmed remaining skeptics by jumping 7'4½" to finish second at last month's Millrose Games, and now he's being talked about as a possible gold medalist next summer at the Los Angeles Olympics. "Everyone wants to know, who is he?" says his coach, Alan Dean. "How old is he? Where does he come from? Is he really an American?"
For the record, Carter is an American, an Army brat born on a U.S. military base in Augsburg, Germany to an NCO and a former high school sprinter. When he was nine, he set up his first crossbar, a broomstick with a pair of crutches as standards, in front of a pile of mattresses in his backyard. He had been jumping around a lot in other ways, too: The family returned to the U.S. when Jerome was six, living in Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey and Maryland; he has called eight different towns home. After the last move his parents divorced, and since 1978 Jerome and his three brothers have lived with their mother in Edgewood.
Carter was a Class-C state champion high jumper (6'4") as a junior at Harford Vocational Technical High. Dean was his coach there, too, and in Carter's senior year he broke the state high school record by two inches with a jump of 6'10" before fracturing his ankle. Fortunately, it wasn't his left, or takeoff, foot, but he spent eight weeks in casts. After the last was chipped away, Carter leaped 6'11" to win the East Coast Invitational. He awaited the call of higher education. New Mexico State obliged.
But the pain in his ankle persisted. X rays showed the break had never healed. Pins were inserted by a doctor in New Mexico, and, discouraged and homesick, Carter returned home after one semester, taking a job in a printing shop. "I was tired of school, tired of everything," he says. "I wanted to make money and buy clothes and things."
Then last summer, during a pickup basketball game with his brothers, Carter's head nearly grazed the rim as he went up for a dunk. "It flipped me out," he says. "I realized I still had something." He called on Dean, who was coaching at Harford Community. Dean encouraged him to enroll and resume jumping.
Carter's a reedy kid who seems to live in a blue track suit and white painter's cap, and is remarkably composed for his age. "I'm confident about what Jerome can do," says Carter, speaking of himself in the third person. "The only thing that upsets me is when Jerome doesn't do it. I'm as serious as a heart attack."
High jumping can be a sport of fierce psychological intimidation. At the Fairfax, Va. meet, an opponent tried to psych him out by glowering at him from the gallery. "He looked down on me like he was God," says Carter. "It made me angry."
That night Carter started at 6'8", wearing two hooded sweat shirts and two pairs of sweat pants. "It's cool in here," he told Dean, before clearing the bar on his second attempt. He still had both pairs of sweats on when he jumped 7 feet. "Do me a favor," Dean said to Carter. "Before this gets serious, take off your extra clothing."
"Don't worry, Coach," Carter replied. "It's not serious yet." He promptly made 7'2" on his first attempt. By then, he was the only jumper left in the event.
At 7'4", things began to get cardiac serious. He took off both his sweat shirts and one pair of sweat pants. He needed just one jump. At 7'7", he finally doffed the remaining sweat pants—and made the height on his first attempt.
Then, rather than go for Jeff Woodard's U.S. indoor best of 7'7¾", he decided to try for a world-record 7'8½". But the meet officials had trouble locating the sort of steel tape with which world-record jumps must be measured. When one was finally found—half an hour later—Carter had lost his rhythm. Nevertheless, two of his three misses were close. "I guess I got a little too excited," he says.
Carter also tends to get excited about his footgear. His mother, Evelyn, remembers buying him shoes for a high school basketball game. Carter had expected leather Converses, like the ones his teammates wore, but Mom showed up with all she could afford, a pair of cheap, no-name canvas sneakers. Carter was chagrined. "Fish heads!" he exclaimed. "Ma, what's this going to do to my image?"
In Carter's first seven meets this season, he wore seven different pairs of shoes. He started out with his high school shoes, a pair of spiked Pumas, but at his first three meets he was told he couldn't wear them because of the surfaces in use, so he reached 6'11", then 7'4" in those same old borrowed, beat-up running shoes whose insoles had been ripped out. Size nine shoes, size 11 feet. On Jan. 9 he jumped 7'2" in heavy new football turf shoes he'd bought for better traction. He finally got to wear his old Pumas the night he reached 7'7".
At the Millrose Games he donned a new pair of Nike high jump shoes, the Adidases he'd worn at a meet the week before having been destroyed—the unorthodox cut he makes before launching at the bar had shredded his soles.
Carter's cut is an abrupt turn in an L-shaped approach, one of Dean's innovations. Dean's principal qualification for coaching the high jump seems to have been four years of study at the conservatory of music at Baltimore's Peabody Institute. He teaches music at Harford Vocational Technical High and also plays jazz trumpet. In the jazz tradition, Dean's coaching philosophy leaves a lot of room for improvisation. Certainly the approach he devised is not standard. Unlike most high jumpers, who jog to the bar, Carter lopes, and flings himself up in the air on the dead run.
But all is not as haphazard as it might seem. Dean, 35, is an analytical coach. His conversation is sprinkled with phrases like "maximum thrust," "ground force" and "trajectory." "I'm trying to translate the horizontal motion of Jerome's approach to rotary and vertical motion as he clears the bar," he says.
"I just try to make my cut so fast you can't see it," Carter explains. "Then I pop, quick. I'm up, like in a blast. I don't know why I've gone so high lately. I just do what Mr. Dean tells me."
Carter's technique is basically a variation on the Fosbury Flop, used by most notable modern high jumpers. The biggest exception has been Yashchenko, a straddler. In Dean's scheme, looking at the bar is taboo. "I teach Jerome to execute the components of the jump rather than focus on the bar," he says. "The bar will take care of itself." It's a theory based on the teachings of his mentor, a trumpet teacher in Manhattan, Carmine Caruso. "He taught us," says Dean, "that if we didn't think about stretching up to a high note, we'd be able to just blow down on top of it."
Some think the theories Dean trumpets have little to do with Carter's success. Veteran high jumper Dwight Stones, for one, sneers at Carter's "poor form." "Did you see my parabolic curve?" he said proudly at the Millrose Games. "I've got a smoother peak height that takes place over a longer interval. Carter may clear the bar by inches, but how much on the way up and how much on the way down? He has a much narrower margin for error."
But Stones's margin of error on that occasion, his first head-to-head competition with Carter, was the narrower. He may have the shapeliest parabolic curve in high jumping, but each time he cleared the bar it wobbled vigorously. Carter topped it with room to spare. At 7'6½", Stones leaned into the bar on all three tries, knocking it off with his shoulders. Most of Carter cleared it, but his heels got caught on the follow-through. With fewer misses, Carter edged Stones for second place behind Fresno State's Tyke Peacock; they'd all cleared 7'4".
"Seven-eleven," Carter mumbled as he left the arena that night, and he wasn't talking convenience stores. He's already looking well beyond the world record. "If I don't get it this indoor season," he says, "I'll surely get it in 1984."
And why not? It's a leap year.