Up Where She Belongs

Louise Ritter's longstanding love for the high jump was finally requited in Seoul, where she won Olympic gold
January 09, 1989

After 15 years of fantasizing, Louise Ritter had her moment of ecstasy on Sept. 30, 1988. It arrived with a rush. Ritter was not favored to win the Olympic women's high jump. Bulgaria's Stefka Kostadinova held the world record of 6'10¼", more than a two-inch cushion over Ritter's American record of 6'8". What's more, the 23-year-old Kostadinova had easily beaten the 30-year-old, often-injured Ritter at the 1987 World Championships.

"If I were a betting person, I'd have put every cent I had on Kostadinova," says Ritter. "She's the best I've ever seen." So the excitement seemed to flow primarily from Kostadinova's slim but delicious chance at becoming the first woman to clear seven feet.

In Seoul on Sept. 30, Kostadinova and Ritter arched over the early heights with brisk efficiency. By the time the pink-and-green bar was placed at 6'8", they were the only competitors left and. having no misses, were tied for first place. With at least a silver guaranteed. Ritter had acquitted herself superbly. "I relaxed a bit then," she says. "It was easy to go all-or-nothing after I'd medaled."

But Ritter, taking off too close to the bar, missed all three tries at 6'8". So, astoundingly, did Kostadinova, who repeatedly had the height but came down on the bar.

They went to a jump-off. Each would be given one more try at 6'8". If neither made it, the bar would be lowered, two centimeters at a time, until one of the women cleared it.

Kostadinova was up first. Again she missed. Ritter thought. "If I don't do it now, I might not ever get another chance."

She moved back 12 inches for her takeoff. "I stand until I get the feeling that it's right," she says. "I try not to think of anything except doing my turn well. My subconscious does better at this than my conscious."

Ritter stood for no more than 10 seconds, took two walking steps, a little hop and 11 running steps while curling in toward the bar from the right. Then she planted her left foot and leaped.

"My dreams and my jumping go hand in hand," she would say. "When I let myself go, there's a split second between takeoff and landing when I can't tell you what I feel. I can't tell you what I dream. It's connected. People have asked me what my thoughts were when I jumped in Seoul. I don't know what they were." She was way up high, a dream, above memory, above language.

Above the bar. Her right thigh caressed it, then slipped over, leaving it vibrant but in place.

She came to her senses in the pit. She had won. Her giddiness astonished her: "I'd imagined a million times how I'd feel on the award stand if I won. I'd cry patriotic tears. That's how it's supposed to be. But I associate tears with pain, and there was no pain. I was so happy, all I could do was smile and smile."

Three months later, taking a stab at the meaning of it all. Ritter says, "The high jump is a relationship. You have to nurture it. You have to treat it with respect, to sense what you're bringing to it, and what you're getting back. And just like when you're involved with somebody who's maybe not treating you right, you won't listen to your parents or to the wisdom of someone who's experienced. You have to go through every dumb, emotional thing yourself."

So it is only now that we can look back and see how high jumping seduced, hurt, nurtured, strung along and finally fulfilled a good woman.

Ritter was born in Dallas in 1958, the second of Leo and Dorothy Ritter's four daughters. Leo drives 18-wheelers. Dorothy stayed home with her energetic offspring. "You could have tied Louise to a chair, and she'd end up with a dirty face," says her mother. Baby Louise once firmly announced, "I want you to know I'm washable."

"Even as a child, no matter what it was, she wanted to be the best at it," says Dorothy.

Louise was pounding out her niche. "I had three sisters," she says. "I always felt one's prettier, one's smarter, one's my mom's favorite. What am I?"

The athlete. "Her second grade P.E. teacher had her running," says Dorothy. "She already had that great stride. We went to an all-comers track meet, and Louise saw the high jump for the first time. Just kids, doing it feet first."

Ritter let out a yell that would carry all the way to Seoul: "I wanna do that!" Thus she was smitten.

The affair would have to wait, though, because in the fourth grade Ritter contracted rheumatic fever. "Her wings were clipped for eight or nine months," says her mother. Medication and restrictions didn't end for another year or more.

"It wasn't a bad case, in that there were no lasting side effects," says Ritter now. "I just felt weak and tired all the time. But not getting to do physical things, boy, you find out how important they are."

During the time that Ritter was sitting out sports, the family moved to a house on 10 acres near Red Oak, Texas (pop. 1,882), about 20 miles south of Dallas. "We had cows," Ritter says. "I grew up country. I'll always be more chicken-fried steak than sushi."

She was allowed no sports until she was 13. Then she played junior high basketball and later added track at Red Oak High. That reunited her with her old flame. "I was born to be a high jumper," says Ritter. "We fit, the event and I. It's perfect for my body and my personality. It's mine."

And she's its. "The obstacle is the thing," she says, having explained this a thousand times and feeling she has never gotten it just right. "The bar is the answer to the question of whether you are successful. It's always there. If you make it, it goes up. The challenge is constant, and that's what I want."

She found immediate success. Jumping straddle-style, she won the Texas high school Class 2A meet as a freshman. And winning provided her with a nice, comfortable sense of who she was. "I wasn't a real confident child," she says. "I was gangly and shy. Here was something I did better than anyone else. It made me...tingle inside. I'm still not what you'd call a wildly confident person. But hitching myself to jumping helped in a lot of ways."

She became a stronger student and began to pursue a serious sporting life. "Her sisters learned how to flirt, how to talk to the guys," says Dorothy Ritter. "Louise never learned that. She didn't worry about frilly stuff. And let's face it, as good as she was at basketball and high jumping, guys then didn't ask girls like that out."

"I guess I haven't let what women are 'supposed' to do, marry and have babies, get to me," says Ritter, who was not (and is not) averse to marrying and having babies. She just wanted to chase after track's circus first. "I tried not to let anyone direct my life if they weren't me."

At Texas Woman's University, in Denton, she remembers herself as an inquiring soul. "I needed a coach who could let me in on the sense of things," says Ritter. "I was always asking. 'Why am I doing this?' " Her coach, Dr. Bert Lyle, was a fountain of answers. He switched her to the Fosbury flop, and she won the AIAW championship in 1977 at 6'1½".

The change in technique was crucial for Ritter. The straddle calls for a raw. muscular spring. The flop is a better way of harnessing horizontal running speed and giving it nowhere to go but up. "I'm not explosive off the ground." says Ritter. "My skill is transferring speed into lift."

The lift sends her soaring. She easily dunks volleyballs in training. "At TWU my roommate won $10 bets on whether I could dunk," she says, "but word got around."

She would do the same with a basketball, but her hands are too small for her to palm it. "I tried it once," she says ruefully. "I needed another inch. The ball slipped away, and I got rejected from the rim and slammed down on my back. I'm 5'10", so it bugs me that 6'2", 6'3" women can't dunk."

The combined stresses of the new jumping technique and her serious training began to splinter Ritter's young skeleton. While she was in college, she had two operations to remove bone spurs from her left ankle. And later she had surgery to repair torn cartilage in her right knee and for a torn Achilles tendon.

Yet she always healed fast, and she gained a place among a small group of women who dominated the event in the U.S. Remarkably, the three high jump slots on each of the 1976, 1980 and 1984 U.S. Olympic teams were filled by just four athletes: Joni Huntley, Pam Spencer, Paula Girven and Ritter.

Ritter's first shot at an Olympics, in 1980, was boycotted away. "I'd redshirted," she says. "The eggs were all in one basket. I was young. Track was my life at that point." So losing her chance to go to Moscow hit her hard. "I vowed I'd never let jumping totally dominate my life again."

She graduated in 1981, with a physical education degree, and commenced some years of, in her phrase, "floundering." She had already made her first move that year, joining a legendary pack of hard-traveling, try-anything athletes known as the Pacific Coast Club.

"The PCC had its heyday in the late '70s, early '80s." says pole vaulter Billy Olson. "It's calmed down now. Even me. Brill-o [Canadian high jumper Debbie Brill] and Kate-o [U.S. javelin thrower Kate Schmidt], boy, they made the club fun. I remember the first summer in Europe with them in 1980. I was green. But Louise was real green. Red Oak and Denton green. It was fun watching her going through it."

Exactly what was gone through is hard to pin down. Aside from stories about skinny-dipping on the Riviera, the tales all seem to be of late meets, overnight parties, red-eye flights and being abandoned somewhere near Malmö, Sweden, with 20 bags and six vaulting poles. "It was the greatest time of my life." says Olson. "I cannot explain it."

Brill and Ritter hit it off, helped coach each other and remain fast friends. "The scared kid loosened up," says Brill. "She really responded to little things Tom Jennings did for her, like getting her into the meets she wanted."

"For years she took on the Eastern European hotshots—Tamara Bykova, Kostadinova—and always got second," says Jennings, the PCC manager.

"And I went from training hard to being lazy." says Ritter. Being lazy was her salvation. "I stopped being hurt so much. I jumped better. I babied myself into a longer career."

It helped, too, that Ritter finally learned how to jump. "I was rotating my takeoff foot while it was on the ground." she says. "That was doing damage." She made the necessary correction. Lately she has yet another bone spur. "But it only hurts when I take off wrong," she says.

In 1983, she hoisted the American record to 6'6¾" at a U.S.-East Germany meet in the L.A. Memorial Coliseum and, with it, expectations for Olympic success. But a year later, unable to shake the effects of a chronic hip flexor injury, she finished eighth in the L.A. Olympic final, which was won by Ulrike Meyfarth of West Germany at 6'7½".

She suffered then from a dreary sense of having let people down. "I have a history of doing things for reasons, for the scholarship, for friends," she says. "After L.A., here was the choice: I could quit and hate myself for the rest of my life, or go on for me. Just me."

She went on. She had a good year in 1985, jumping 6'6¾", and a rotten one in 1986, when she took part in only 10 meets. "It just got very old. I trained at most once a week. I was 28. Was it time to start a career? To build more of a foundation for myself than jumping?"

Her mother had begged her to retire after the '84 Olympics. "I'm a mother." Dorothy says. "I'm proud of all she's achieved, but what is this doing to her physically? Will she be limping at 40 or 50?"

Yet when all was factored in, Ritter concluded that the seasoning of her years not only would make her reliable in big meets like the 1988 Olympics but would let her enjoy her jumping more. "Maybe it really was too easy at 20," she says, grinning. "You didn't think about it then. You did it and took it for granted. Now I value a good workout. Now after 15 jumps I may walk home stiffly, but I have this mysterious little smile because...I can still do it."

"I think when Louise let it drift in 1986, she realized how much jumping meant to her," Brill says. "Rather than standing outside it, she became it." Ritter labored on refreshed, with a more abandoned love.

Her fidelity was rewarded with one more blow to the heart. After a splendid 1987 season, with two victories over Kostadinova, she got sick, lost 10 pounds in 10 days before the World Championships in Rome and finished eighth.

But in 1988 she was unstoppable. "And now people say I got lucky in Seoul," she says. "I'm kind of tired of that. I jumped my best. Why can't it be that I was unlucky all those years?"

After Ritter was home and the excitement of Seoul died away, she went through a period of despond. "I couldn't figure out what was wrong," she says. "Everything I wanted happened, and I'm depressed?" Yes, because a goal achieved is a goal lost. "I felt in limbo."

She had already helped start The Sports Connection, a Dallas company that sells used sporting equipment. Across from the old Dr Pepper building on Mockingbird Lane, it seems a typical Ritter operation. Texas-sensible. Useful. Now she has also taken an assistant coaching job at SMU. But what pulled her through the doldrums was contemplating a jump she made in the U.S. Olympic Trials last summer.

High-speed film from biomechanical studies shows that her clearance at 6'6¼" would have put her easily over a world record 6'11". "That's just the high jump," she says, forgiving it its fickle nature. "That was probably the best jump of my life. I know the bar wasn't up where I needed it, but golly, it makes you feel it's in there, waiting to come around again."

So when a guy in her health club whom she barely knew asked what was next, she replied, "World record."

"You'll never set it," he said blandly.

"Why not?"

"You'll be content with the gold."

"Content?" said Ritter, her eyes widening. "Satisfied? Listen, I may not get it, but it won't be because of that!"

"Knowing her as I do," said Olson later, "I'm surprised she didn't punch the guy."


PHOTOBRAD TRENT/DOTAfter tying Kostadinova in the Seoul final, Ritter cleared 6'8" to win the jump-off. PHOTOBRAD TRENT/DOTRitter, with the Dallas skyline behind her, is a chicken-fried-steak Texan, born and bred. PHOTOBRAD TRENT/DOTOver a post-Olympic letdown, Ritter, here with Olson, has resumed serious training. PHOTOBRAD TRENT/DOTWhen Ritter's not jumping, her down-to-earth business is selling sports equipment.

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