Jumping for Joy

Larry Myricks, aiming for his fourth Olympic team—and first medal—jumps mostly for himself
July 17, 1988

The events that occur at Indiana University Track and Field Stadium in Indianapolis in the early evening of July 18 will mark the beginning of the end of the 12-year Olympic odyssey of Larry Myricks. After the man in the blue body singlet rocks back on his heels and explodes down the long jump runway at the 1988 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, it will all be behind him. Over. Finished. In his wake will be three other Olympic trials—1976, 1980 and 1984. Each time, Myricks, now 32, made the team as a long jumper, but he has never won an Olympic medal.

In a career noteworthy for its longevity, Myricks has earned a reputation for near-misses and almosts. He was injured before the '76 Olympic final. He was the favorite to win the gold in Moscow but was sideswiped by the U.S.-led boycott. By 1984 he had improved his long jump best to 28'1", putting him among the world's foremost jumpers, but because Carl Lewis was better than everybody, Myricks set his sights on the silver or bronze at Los Angeles. He finished fourth. At the most recent World Championships, in Rome in September 1987, his luck held. He was robbed of the bronze by the Italian field judges, who cheated on the measurement of an Italian's final jump, bumping Myricks to fourth. At times during his career, Myricks must have felt that there were forces conspiring against him everywhere he turned. Even when he was triumphant, at last, at the World Indoor Championships in Indianapolis in March 1987, the competition concluded so late at night that only a few dozen spectators remained in the arena to witness his victory.

In Indy, Lewis, now 27, will again be the favorite to win the long jump, as well as the gold in Seoul. Lewis and Myricks probably won't be speaking to each other; they rarely do. Everybody else speaks to Myricks. Everybody else finds him warm and engaging. At the 1987 Pan American Games, in the same Indianapolis stadium, Myricks received good wishes and advice from other jumpers before going out and finishing second. But not from Lewis. "That was the loneliest meet of my life," Myricks says. "There were only two competitors per country per event. Carl never said a word to me. Not even hello. The only time he spoke was when I congratulated him after he won."

Why? "I don't understand it. Maybe he feels threatened," says Myricks. "Maybe he knows there's something in me, something I'll uncork, something that might turn heads from him. You know, Mike Conley [another U.S. long jumper] is a hell of a competitor, but we help each other through all our competitions. Carl is...not a person I care to hang out with...but that's only because he feels that way. You can't get to know him. I've tried."

Myricks also runs the 200 meters in 20 seconds and change, though that's not his main event. He is first and foremost a long jumper—racing for 26 steps along the runway, hoping for a fair, solid, almost vicious plant, then flying nearly 28 feet through the air while hitch-kicking 2½ times. Myricks has jumped 28 feet or beyond nine times, second in the world to Lewis, who has done it 45 times. Only two other athletes now competing have ever jumped that far—Conley and Robert Emmiyan of the U.S.S.R. In May 1987, Emmiyan jumped 29'1", the closest anyone has come to Bob Beamon's 20-year-old world record of 29'2½".

Long jumping can be a dangerous business. After all, jumping 28 feet through the air is the equivalent of leaping from a second-story window. It looks easy. The ride is nice. The landing requires thought. But fatigue could be costly to Myricks. He knows it. "My one flaw is weak ankles," he says. In 1976, when he was 20 and less prone to consider his flaws, Myricks was the finest young long jumper in America. There was no Lewis to deal with then. Myricks learned he had weak ankles in Montreal. He was warming up for the Olympic final, taking "run-throughs," when he heard something pop. He had broken a bone in his right ankle. "It took a year and a half to heal. I couldn't run or jog or bowl," says Myricks, an avid bowler with a 170 average. "I went from 175 pounds to 157 pounds." That began his odyssey. He might have won medals in three Olympics, but instead he has none.

In spite of his disappointments, Myricks seems serene as he lounges on a sunny day by the track at Mt. San Antonio College, near his home in Ontario, Calif. "I figured out long ago that I'm not jumping for medals," he says. "An Olympic medal is one of my life goals. It may be my turn to get one. But that's not why I jump. I jump because I do it well. I'd jump if there were no Olympics."

Is there a scenario in which he can outjump Carl Lewis? "Well, I don't know. He's a speed jumper, period. He's faster, but I'm stronger off the board," Myricks says. "I can't fantasize. I can't say until it happens. But I know he's human. That means he can be beaten. That means I can do it."

Myricks grew up in Jackson, Miss., where his parents still live, and brought home his first track and field trophy when he was eight. "From a YMCA meet or something," says his mother, LaPearl, who is an academic counselor at Hinds Community College in nearby Pearl. "He barely noticed that he had won it."

His father, Lawrence, owns and operates the World Class Upholstery shop in Jackson. "Guess where the name comes from," laughs LaPearl. Larry is the second of four Myricks children—his brothers, twins Laird and Larrell, are 29, and his sister, Latanya, is 33. "You've got to have some get-up-and-go," says Lawrence while tending the grill at the family barbecue on the Fourth of July. "We told all four of our kids to be versatile, work hard and when you're grown, you're on your own. Keep moving."

By the time Larry was in junior high, word had spread that the Myricks boy was almost jumping out of the gym. The school principal, Joe Walker Sr., had a son, Joe Jr., who happened to be the track coach at Mississippi College in Clinton. "I remember my father telling me to come over to watch a junior high long jumper," says Walker. "I finally did. I kept going back after that." Myricks eventually long-jumped 23'6" as a junior at Forest Hill High.

He received scholarship offers from several universities, but Walker already had made his case. "We did backflips when he decided to come [to Clinton]," says Walker, who is now the track coach at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. In college, Myricks ran a 9.4 100-yard dash as a freshman and a 20.44 200 meters as a sophomore. He jumped 27 feet for the first time in the 1976 Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore.

After injuring his ankle in Montreal, Myricks went back to Clinton and graduated in 1979 with a bachelor's degree in business management. "Joe Walker was good for me," he says. "He helped me develop. He got into my life and made sure I did the work. He knew I had lofty goals. He showed me that only a few people can help you. It's on you."

Says Walker, "Larry was a good all-around athlete. We always thought he'd be a great one. Of course, we didn't have the greatest facilities, but we did have something money can't buy—we had camaraderie. We all helped each other."

In August 1979, Myricks jumped 27'11½" to win the World Cup in Montreal. "I won the 1980 [Olympic] trials at 27'2" and had already set the world indoor best twice that year," Myricks recalls. "Then we were called to Washington, all the Olympic team members, to a banquet room of a hotel. The boycott was no worse than the ankle. It meant the same thing. It meant you couldn't compete."

He moved to Southern California the next year and now works for General Dynamics as a recruiter in the personnel division. "I had competed at the Mt. SAC Relays for several years," says Myricks. "I always liked it here." It seemed 1984 would be the year in which he would finally get an Olympic medal in the long jump, though Lewis was the undisputed favorite for the gold. But in Los Angeles he bombed on his final attempt, jumping only 20'7¾", and finished fourth. Myricks says, "It was just not my day."

"In 1980, when I first met him, that was when he was really at his peak," says Ernie Gregoire, the dean of special programs at Mt. San Antonio and Myricks's coach since 1982. "Larry is not the temperamental sort. He's decent, easy to get along with. He's a man for all seasons. You can go around the circuit, and no one will knock Larry. In 1984 he had it [the medal] in hand and he just let it go. Maybe it wasn't his turn. But that big monster jump is still in him somewhere, waiting to pop up. I strongly believe he'll medal in Seoul."

Since January, Myricks has seen his well-worn passport stamped half a dozen more times: in Japan, France, Spain, Switzerland, Greece and West Germany. At the TAC Championships in Tampa on June 18, he passed up the long jump and instead ran, and won, the 200 in 20.50. That same day he was also finally awarded the bronze medal for the long jump at the 1987 World Championships. Better late than never.

In Rome he had jumped 27'4" and, until the final round, was in third place. Then Giovanni Evangelisti of Italy made his last jump, and the Italian judges in charge of measuring for the event marked his leap at 27'6". Evangelisti was awarded the bronze medal. But observers were suspicious of the measurement. It took eight months and some pressing by the sport's watchdogs, but a computer analysis of videotapes of the Italian's jump revealed that, indeed, the judges had added to Evangelisti's actual distance. The scandal shook the International Amateur Athletic Federation and the Italian track federation. No one suggested that Evangelisti was anything but an innocent in all this, but the fact remained that Myricks had been snakebit again.

After the IAAF decision to give Myricks the bronze was announced in April, Myricks said, "It would not be the same to get the medal in the mail."

In Lille, France, on June 27, Myricks jumped 27'11". "And my foot was six inches behind the board," he says.

"If I don't medal at the Olympics, I'll still feel proud and happy," he says. "I've done it with what I had. The [performance-enhancing] drugs are so bad. So many are on them. But if that's what it takes to jump 30 feet, then I'll never do it. This is the only body I've got. Maybe I'm stupid. Maybe I don't want any kids born with three eyes or something. Maybe I just have a conscience."

Myricks gives speeches to high school and business groups about the nature of competition, and he coaches at clinics for local kids. Next year he and one of his sponsors, Goldwin, a Japanese sporting goods firm, plan to start a track club for promising young athletes.

He has recently separated from his wife, Sandra, with whom their 4-year-old daughter, LaKeesha, now lives. Myricks has taken a paid leave of absence from General Dynamics to train for the Olympics, and he has temporarily given up his regular bowling outings. At this moment in his life, everything else takes a back seat to the trials. He has to know if the monster jump is still in him.

LaPearl and Lawrence will be in Indianapolis on July 18 to watch him. "Whatever he does, he's worked at it well," says LaPearl. "When you do that, it means something special."

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERThe sprinter's speed Myricks generates on his approach powers him through his jump. PHOTOTONY DUFFY/ALL-SPORT USAIn June, Myricks was awarded the bronze medal he was cheated out of in Rome. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERMyricks, an avid bowler, has had to limit his visits to the lanes. PHOTOKEVIN KOLCZINSKILaPearl and Lawrence (at their Jackson upholstery shop) will watch Larry at the trials. PHOTOTONY DUFFY/ALL-SPORT USAAt the '87 TAC meet, Conley (left) and Myricks (center) jogged near, not with, Lewis.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)