As I rounded the last turn my lungs burned as though I'd inhaled fire, my brain throbbed and my legs felt like two sticks of celery in the grip of a vise. I forced my head slightly back to give the impression that I was in control of my body, but my legs gave me away.
This was my first two-mile relay, and I'd entertained pre-race fantasies of swooping, gliding and floating through my half-mile leg in Kansas City at the 1968 N.A.I.A. Indoor Track Championships. No way. I gasped as I passed the baton to an Oklahoma Christian College teammate, and then I stumbled off the track, crestfallen. My leg of the relay had been a disaster. I'd blazed the first two laps around the small track in an energetic swell of euphoria that lasted until the third lap, when my muscles began to send messages saying that they couldn't continue at that pace. I started to struggle, running more and more slowly, finally dragging the last lap in defeated humiliation. When I passed the baton, my team, which had been fourth when I began my leg, was now sixth.
And then, as I bent over to untie my shoelaces that had somehow turned to hot lava during the ordeal, I heard it. I didn't pay much attention at first; after all, I had been hearing the thump, thump, thump of pounding feet on the boards all afternoon. As I fumbled with the laces, the thumping became louder and reverberated too much for comfort. I turned my head sideways to see what was happening, and to my horror I saw that I was looking directly down the runway for the long jump. I froze, and then I mumbled, "Lord, have mercy"—a Midwestern expression akin to "hot o'mighty damn," which is about as good an exclamation as any when you realize that you're hunkering on the edge of the long-jump pit as an athlete is planting his takeoff foot.
That was the first time I ever laid eyes on Bob Beamon.
My first thought was to leap backwards, but with all 10 of my fingers entangled in my shoelaces and my motor nerves temporarily short-circuited, I was afraid any attempt at quick movement would land me in a hapless heap in the pit instead of just on the edge of it.
As Beamon's foot hit the takeoff board, it sounded as if a stick of dynamite had just detonated. A rush of air came from his lungs—hummphhff!—and in an instant I saw the bottom of his spikes coming directly at me. The vision of a wounded athlete being carried off on a stretcher with two perfectly implanted Adidases in the side of his face whirled through my mind. But Beamon kept on going up, up, up and over. As I turned to watch what I thought would be his descent, I was amazed to find that he was still going up even after he passed the point where I was crouching. With his arms arched back, he soared onward. When he was far past me, he finally did come down—at the extreme edge of the pit—in an incredible crash of flying sawdust. As he hit the surface, his feet exactly parallel, the tops of his shoes were beyond the end of the pit. I said calmly to myself, "That guy just jumped out of the long-jump pit."
And he had. Beamon had just set an indoor world record of 27'1".
The arena exploded with cheers. Everyone knew. Jump completely out of the pit and people notice. Beamon sprang out of the sawdust, smiled and pranced nervously while waiting for the measurement. I was breathless, not from my own ill-conceived efforts, but from the unexpected excitement of having seen a world record up close.
Beamon was unique in appearance. He was tall and extremely thin, with a long neck. His black skin glistened with perspiration. His stride and carriage were extraordinarily graceful, reminding one of a cheetah. I moved forward from the crowd and was the first to congratulate him. He pumped my hand with a glazed look in his eye that said he didn't yet grasp the fact that he'd set a world record. I was as excited as he was. I kept shouting, "Did you see me? I was almost in the pit." But he didn't seem to hear me.
Two months later Beamon surpassed that indoor record, jumping 27'2¾", and the following fall he performed what some experts say is the outstanding athletic achievement of all time. His jump of 29'2" at the Mexico City Olympics gained much more attention than his indoor world record had, and rightly so. Later I tried to imagine where Beamon would've landed had he done 29'2" that night in Kansas City. I guess he would've gone completely out of the pit and onto the track.
I've had the privilege of seeing some inspiring and inspired athletic performances over the past 10 years. At Southern Hills in the '77 U.S. Open, I watched Arnold Palmer birdie the 12th hole by sinking a chip shot. Arnie's Army went totally insane, and many of its members were in tears. I saw John Carlos run a 20-second 220—from the rear. I was in tears. I saw Lou Brock get his 3,000th hit. But by far the most memorable moment for me occurred that night in 1968. I'll never forget seeing the bottom of Beamon's spikes coming directly at me and then, somehow, floating on by and coming down to a world record.
When Beamon made his big leap at the Olympics, I felt as if I had a personal stake in the achievement. Whenever I hear people talk about the Jump, I get a bit of a smile on my face, remembering the night Beamon turned my agony to ecstasy.