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Dick Fosbury Leaves Behind the Legendary Flop and Service to the Wood River Valley
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Tuesday, March 14, 2023
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Dick Fosbury, who revolutionized the sport of high jumping with his Fosbury Flop and went on to quietly shape the Wood River Valley as an engineering consultant, has died one week after turning 76.

The Blaine County commissioner passed away peacefully in his sleep early Sunday morning in the midst of receiving chemotherapy and other treatment for a recurrence of lymphoma, a friend posted on Fosbury’s Instagram page.

“It was very much unexpected,” said Muffy Davis, who served with Fosbury on the Blaine County Commission. “We knew he was getting treatment for cancer in Utah but the reports we’d gotten was that he was doing really well.”

News of Fosbury’s death resounded around the world. Not only was he considered one of the most influential athletes in the history of track and field, but he served as vice president of the Olympians Association for 12 years and as president of the World Olympians Association for four years. He also served on the alumni association, where he encouraged fellow alumni to inspire youth in their communities via Olympic Day and other activities.

He is in the U.S. Olympic, U.S. National Track and Field and World Sports Humanitarian halls of fame.

It was the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City that put the lanky 6-foot-4 high jumper on the map as he stunned the world by sprinting diagonally towards the bar, then twisting his body and propelling himself back first over the high jump.

He not only won the gold medal but he inspired generations of high jumpers to come as they traded in the traditional scissor kick for his method.

He later spent years coaching track and field athletes at Wood River High School, never missing a day. One of his youngsters--Stella Barsotti--was district girls’ high jump champion two straight years and was second in state two straight years.

“He was a legendary athlete. The International Olympic Museum has a special section dedicated to Dick Fosbury and the Fosbury flop,” said Davis. “He was an engineer and with his engineering mind he figured out a different way to do the high jumps. Of course, he wasn’t thinking about revolutionizing the sport—he was just thinking about how to get better results for himself. But all these years later his technique was still being used.”

Fosbury grew up in Medford, Ore., where his father was a salesman and his mother, a bookkeeper.  It was a tight-knit family that played Monopoly and Yahtzee on Friday nights, attended square dances and cheered Dick, who was raised on Wonder Bread and wore size 12 shoes, as he competed at track and field events for Medford High School.

Always humble, Fosbury said 50 years later that he was probably the worst prep high jumper in the state of Oregon. He couldn’t even clear the opening height of 5 feet at his first high school meet, even though his father had built him a high jump with a sawdust pit in the back of his home.

But Fosbury kept at it, experimenting with the scissors kick and adding his own little twists. And then at the 1968 Summer Olympics, he started running in the thin air of 7,350-foot Mexico City, and sailed back first over the bar, ignoring coaches who told him it was foolhardy, fans who thought it laughable and doctors who thought it dangerous.

He not only won a gold medal with his offbeat style but he revolutionized the sport in what Eugene Register-Guard sportswriter Bob Welch would call “a one-man high-jump revolution” in the biography “The Wizard of Foz.”

“I had done pretty well at the scissors-kick—it was easy for a tall kid,” Fosbury told Eye on Sun Valley.  “But my high school coach said I needed to change because it was too limiting. He taught me the newer style—the straddle, or belly roll--and I was awful. I went from being a competitor to a loser.”

Frustrated and depressed, Fosbury asked if he could revisit the scissors-kick after six months of the straddle. Then he began experimenting.

“I knew I had to lift my hip higher to get my butt over the bar. I leaned back and made it. They raised the bar, I leaned back further, and it worked again. I ended up jumping six inches higher, lying flat on my back, as I crossed over the bar. I started leading with my shoulder, going over at an angle and, by my senior year, I was turning my back to the bar and arching over.

“During my junior year at college, I made the Olympic team and I went on to show the entire world a different way. I won so, of course, every kid wanted to copy me.”

Having made the team with a jump of 7-foot-1, Fosbury set an Olympic record, clearing the bar at 7-foot-4 and a quarter inch.

“It was my best day ever. It changed my life in two ways: It taught me that following a program can help you reach your potential and become No. 1 in the world. And it gave me self-confidence that I could achieve more than I had expected—or others had expected,” he said.

In fact, The Flop even landed Fosbury on the popular TV show "The Dating Game" in the early 1970s. "Janis Joplin was the bachelorette and she picked Dick Fosbury," said Susan Scovell, a friend of Fosbury's for 50 years.

Fosbury’s life was not all roses, however. He watched his brother killed by a drunk driver as they were bicycling near their house, and it was something he never got over. But he drew strength from the tragedy, just as he did in overcoming the cancer which he was diagnosed with in 2008.

“I just know I have an angel,” he said in 2018. “I survived the bicycle accident, and I survived cancer. And I really appreciate things like the separated bike path through our valley that keeps bicyclists safe and off the highway out of the path of drunk drivers.”

Armed with a civil engineering degree from the Oregon State University, Fosbury visited Sun Valley in 1973 with a college friend. He returned in 1977, co-founding Galena Engineering.

He was a familiar face at city council and planning and zoning and commissioner meetings, using his engineering expertise as he patiently answered questions regarding proposed developments. He served 25 years as engineer for the City of Ketchum and five years on Blaine County’s Planning and Zoning Commission. He also served on the board of directors of the Wood River YMCA, on the Mountain Rides board, on the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority and as chair of the Southern Idaho Solid Waste District.

“As a civil engineer, he knew everything there was to know about land use. He was even the engineer for the bike path that runs through the community,” said Davis.

Fosbury retired only to decide that he had more to give the community after surviving stage one lymphoma. He ran for Blaine County Commission’s District 1 seat in 2018 to tackle affordable housing and the restoration of the Big Wood River. He went on to win a second term.

“Life is a gift and we need to use what God gives us,” he told Eye on Sun Valley as he campaigned for office. “I made applications to the county and cities for 40 years so I understand land use issues.”

Davis said she was grateful for the way Fosbury mentored her when she succeeded Jacob Greenberg as commissioner.

“He was just such a humble, wonderful, generous human being. And he was always willing to extend a meeting to make sure everyone was able to be heard. He brought not just the rules to the picture but the heart to the picture,” she said.

Davis said Fosbury’s expertise regarding land use planning, public access sites and other things is irreplaceable.

“We’re just devastated. He was immensely knowledgeable about all the details,” she said. “We’re all doing our best, but we’ve been missing him at meetings. And now we will miss him in perpetuity.”

Fosbury is survived by his wife Robin Tomasi, with whom he lived on a 20-acre farm on Glendale Road. He is also survived by a son Erich Fosbury and stepdaughters Stephanie Thomas-Phipps and Kristi Thompson. A celebration of life will be scheduled later.

The Blaine County Democrats will be tasked with nominating three candidates for his commission seat. Gov. Brad Little will pick one of those three.

“The legacy of Dick Fosbury extends far beyond the high jump,” said Avery Roberts, chair of the Idaho Democratic Party.  “A long-time civil rights advocate and business leader, he was a pillar of the Wood River Valley. And, as an Idaho Democrat, he exemplified so many of our values: fairness, grit, and innovative action.”


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