EUGENE, Ore. -- The United States always has been a land of leapers. From Jesse Owens to Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Ralph Boston and Dwight Phillips, the list is long and distinguished. Bob Beamon shocked the world and himself when he made his epic long jump in the thin air of Mexico City in 1968. Mike Powell and Carl Lewis staged a memorable back-and-forth showdown in Tokyo in 1991, and Powell emerged with a new world record.
Dick Fosbury invented the modern technique in the high jump, and Dwight Stones, Hollis Conway and Charles Austin refined it during their years at the top.
Willie Banks and Mike Conley soared in the triple jump.
But in recent years, Americans have been grounded.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, no American male or female won a medal in the long jump, triple jump or high jump. From 1960 to 1996, American men recorded the best long jump of the year 25 times. Since then, only four Americans have finished the year at No. 1. American records in the three jumps are older than the vintage of fine wines.
A new generation of jumpers is revitalizing U.S. hopes, just in time for the July 27-Aug. 12 London Games. They are introducing themselves at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials this week.
High jumper Jessie Williams, the first American to win the world title in 20 years in 2011, is expected to be a top contender for gold in London despite his shaky performance on Monday.
It took him three attempts to clear 7-5 3/4, advancing by the skin of his calves to the next round. He then missed all three attempts at 7-7, as did the other four jumpers in the final round. Williams placed fourth because of his two misses at the previous height, which was cleared on the first attempt by the three athletes who placed ahead of him.
However, Williams has jumped the Olympic A standard qualifying height of 7-7 this year and third-place finisher Nick Ross has not. Ross gets left behind; Williams makes the team.
That made for an odd scene on the medal podium, with Ross accepting his bronze medal and Williams nowhere in sight. Williams’ performance on a drizzly evening was well off his personal best of 7-9 1/4.
“I was jumping terrible and I thought my dreams were crushed,” Williams said. “But this meet is about getting your ticket to London. That’s the way it happens sometimes and I’m grateful.”
Jamie Nieto of the New York Athletic Club placed first and Eric Kynard of Kansas State was second.
Cuba’s Javier Sotomayor has held the high jump world record of 8 feet, 1/2-inch since 1993. Austin holds the American record of 7-10 1/2 from 1991 and Conway has the meet record of 7-8 1/2 set in 1992.
“A lot of us are 21 years old and we’re trying to pick up where great American athletes left off,” Kynard said. “We’re coming up — no, we’re not coming up, we’re here.”
Kynard played basketball until age 15 when he jumped seven feet and his high school coach said, “OK, you’re going to stick to track and field,” Kynard said.
High jumping is more difficult than dunking, he said, “because you’re taking your whole body over the bar.”
He said there is no specific explanation for the U.S. dip in jumping fortunes except that “in other countries, there’s no NFL draining talent, plus America doesn’t follow track and field — they don’t care, so we rely on each other.”