March 10, 2023. A birthday slips quietly by. Debbie Brill turns seventy.
An awfully long time ago, back in 1970 and her barely seventeen years old, she is my first adolescent crush.
Gorgeous and ridiculously athletic, she perfects a radical style of high jumping. Sailing in reverse over the bar, face to the sky, she lands on her back. Often in a crude pit of foam rubber.
Video captures this unique maneuver as early as 1966. First on the family farm, later around the world, it comes to be known as the “Brill Bend.”
The Fraser Valley phenom shatters records, wins multiple awards.
From afar, I follow her career. Indeed, she becomes the first North American woman to clear six feet (1.83m) in competition. A gold medalist at the 1970 Commonwealth Games and 1971 Pan-Am Games, she then finishes eighth in the ill-fated Munich Olympics a year later.
Disillusioned in the wake of the Munich massacre, of the terrorist attack on Israeli team members by the Palestinian militant group Black September, she takes a three-year break from athletics. Yet, even allowing for a disappointing showing at the Montreal Olympics, she returns to again top the podium at the 1979 World Cup and 1982 Commonwealth Games. Is consistently ranked in the world top ten by Track and Field News over a fifteen-year period. Unfortunately, a legitimate chance for Olympic glory in Moscow is denied when Canada boycotts the 1980 Games due to the Soviet Union’s military involvement in Afghanistan.
Undeterred, Brill caps a lengthy and brilliant career with a 1.94m jump and 5th place finish in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Not surprisingly, she is named to the Order of Canada and later wins a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
Interestingly, on returning back in time, when the Canadian teenage sensation initially begins to create headlines, a young American, also based in the Pacific Northwest, is doing the same. Once a struggling high school athlete, he then shoots to fame over the course of a few unforgettable months in the summer and fall of 1968.
His name is Dick Fosbury.
Using a similar technique to Brill, he secures a somewhat unexpected Olympic gold medal in Mexico City. Leaping up and backwards, arching over the bar in what is soon to be immortalized as the “Fosbury Flop,” he endures a grueling five-hour competition to claim the noteworthy Track and Field prize. In so doing, in a stunning performance that thrills and electrifies a packed Estadio Olimpico, in front of a rapt worldwide television audience of millions, he shreds decades of high jump orthodoxy.
Alas, as a competitor, Fosbury never manages to follow up his magnificent Olympic triumph. Though going on to coach successfully, having been raised in a small southern Oregon town he wrestles with life in the limelight. Struggles to deal with the increased attention, is saddled by fatigue. Still, the inventive and acrobatic method used by both he and Brill quickly comes to dominate the high jump at all levels.
Asked many years ago about how his particular technique received its name, he references not the 1968 Olympics but an even earlier newspaper headline. Below the article, an alliterative photo caption reads “Fosbury flops over the bar.”
Years hurtle by, my memories over a half century inevitably blurred by the passage of time. Yet, certain images, certain moments, remain crystal clear, still burn brightly. And always will do so.
Happily, Debbie Brill remains with us. However, a few days ago at the age of seventy-six, Dick Fosbury sadly passes away. A victim of lymphoma.
Tributes pour in from around the world for a legend, an innovator, a pioneer, a teacher, a friend. Nonetheless, for me at least, the pair will always remain inextricably linked.
Indeed, their superb accomplishments and deserved accolades aside, Fosbury and Brill combine to achieve something far greater. Namely, along with a very few, select athletes in other sports, they can justifiably claim to have forever revolutionized their particular discipline.
All the while celebrating what Fosbury himself labelled the ultimate contradiction – a so called "flop" that actually ends up a massive success.