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.
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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.”
On Sunday, Marquise Goodwin, a Texas wide receiver who expects to be drafted into the NFL in 2013, won the long jump with a leap of 27 feet, 4 1/4 inches. Former Florida Gator William Claye, 2012 world indoor champ in the triple jump, was second; George Kitchens, third. Fourth-place finisher Christian Taylor, Claye’s teammate on Florida’s NCAA title team, was the upset winner of the triple jump at the 2011 World Championships. Taylor and Claye, both 21, finished 1-2 in the triple jump at last year’s national championship.
“We’ve been pushing each other — it’s like a brotherhood,” Goodwin said of the U.S. resurgence in the jumps. “Usually guys want the other guys to mess up so they can win but we’re out there saying, ‘You gotta beat that!’ ”
Said Claye: “I call Marquise’s mom ‘Mom’ and he calls my mom ‘Mom.’ ”
Eight different American men have held the world record in the long jump since 1923. Powell’s record of 29-4 1/2 is 21 years old — set before Goodwin was born. Joyner-Kersee held the women’s world record of 24-5 5/16 in 1987 but no American woman has claimed it since. Brittney Reese, who had the best of jump of 2009 (23-3 1/2) wants to leap forward in 2012.
In other finals Monday, Alysia Montano, running as usual with a yellow flower in her hair, held on in the stretch to win the 800 meters in 1:59.08 and local hero Nick Symmonds powered to first in the men’s 800 in 1:43.92.
“Growing up with a group of boys, they’d always make me first pick in football and basketball and I’d wear a flower in my hair to say, ‘I’m a girl,’ ” Montano said. “People used to say ‘you run like a girl’ as a negative thing. What the heck is that supposed to mean? Why not run like a girl?”