In 1968, the year John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black power fists in Mexico City, I was only a foot away from making the American Olympic team. The joke is that in the hundred yard dash one foot would be very close, but in the HIGH JUMP it might as well have been a thousand miles!
Success and failure have contradicting yardsticks. By Olympic standards, I was a failure, but by local standards I was a success: jumping four inches over my own height was enough to make me a state champion and the undefeated co-captain of my Wesleyan University track team with Bill Rogers. There’s a photo of all the team captains smiling at the camera in coats and ties, except for me, the radical, who wore beads…. over his tie. What can I say, it was 1968, neither one era nor the other, caught between, my favorite position.
Another measuring stick is psychological. As a teenager I was very good at many things, but not the best at any one thing, I needed that, I needed to be best at one thing. I have sympathy with current athletes who are tempted to take whatever substance will give them an edge; my version was to make a verbal deal with the devil, I said that if I can make the next height I’d be willing to give up 3 years at the end of my life – it seemed very far away at the time. It worked, I got what I needed and my life unfolded in unexpectedly rich ways. I am very grateful, as I didn’t plan any of it. Individuals’ paths actually work out unpredictably, one event bending into another, dreams shattered becoming a fine place to start dreaming, each corner revealing a new vista. Advance plotting seems to function well for novelists, but a novelist plays the role of God in relation to the work, and when it comes to our personal destiny, we are not God.
At least I hope it’s her last laugh. Life doesn’t go as we might will it, but it does seem to have a certain balance in the end. I landed on hard sawdust many many times and there is a price to pay. My hope is that this replaces the 3 year arrangement.