Dwight Stones popularized it. Lee Balkin is trying to revive it. It's the high jump--American style.
The United States had once been a force in global high jump competitions. Stones set seven indoor and three outdoor world records in the 1970s. But recently, Americans have been nothing more than also-rans. Only one American, Thomas McCants, made the final 16 at the World Championships in Rome last year.
"One Russian made some derogatory remark about the American jumpers," Balkin said. "He said we were a joke. Translated literary I think he called us hamburger meat."
Balkin, although offended by the comment, also concedes that the description is somewhat accurate. He is hoping to change the American image. The Glendale High graduate was ranked fourth nationally by Track and Field News in 1987 and is among the top 20 jumpers in the world. He finished second in The Athletic Congress championships last year with a personal best of 7 feet, 7 inches and a few weeks later set another personal best of 7-7 3/4 in winning the Olympic Festival in North Carolina.
Last season was one of his most rewarding--and frustrating. After jumping better than 7-7 for three consecutive weeks, the 6-4, 175-pounder failed to clear 7-5 in the qualifying round of the World Championships and did not advance to the finals.
"I could come up with a lot of excuses why I didn't jump well, but basically I choked," Balkin said. "They were mostly internal. But I learned a lot. I came away from the situation, although very disappointed, feeling like I got something good out of it, too. I know what to do differently next time."
Balkin, 26, will compete Friday in the 29th annual Sunkist Invitational at the Sports Arena. It is the first of five events in which he will compete in the coming weeks. It is a chance to see what the winter workouts have produced and an opportunity to view the competition. But the indoor meet also will present a special problem for Balkin, who won state and AAU junior national championships his senior season at Glendale and set a national high school record of 7-3.
In his first season at UCLA, Balkin won the Pacific 10 championship, but his training methods at UCLA stressed quantity, not quality, which he says resulted in a serious injury that nearly ended his career.
Balkin had bone spurs removed from his left ankle his sophomore season, but the surgery was not completely successful, he said. Further problems developed, necessitating four more surgeries and a one-month stay in the hospital, where doctors told him that he would never again compete. He redshirted his third year at UCLA and finished his college career with marginal motivation and success. He placed 10th in the NCAA final his junior year and fifth his senior season, earning his first All-American honor.
Although he has conquered his lack of motivation, he cannot ignore the lasting effects of the surgeries.
"The ankle joint doesn't work properly anymore because of the degeneration in it," Balkin said. "There is residual scar tissue in it and I have a limited range of motion. I already have arthritis in it. I'm very wary of it. There is no way of knowing how long it is going to last."
The Sunkist Invitational, an indoor meet, is run on a wooden track. Because of his weakened ankle and general incompatibility with the surface, Balkin has several times slipped and injured himself while approaching the high jump bar.
"There are hard spots in the wood and there are soft spots," he said. "There are nails that you have to contend with. I think it's an awful surface. And there are also technical problems on my part. It's partially the wood and partially the way I deal with it."
Dr. Harry Sneider has seen the changes in Balkin. Sneider, who has coached Dwight Stones for the past 12 years, has assisted Balkin since 1984.
"He's not a good indoor jumper," Sneider said. "It's very tricky to jump on wood and it doesn't have the stability that he requires with his joints. I think it's good for him to be tentative. It's a miracle that he can still jump. It's a miracle that he can lace his shoes up and go for a jog.
"The Sunkist meet is important, but this is an Olympic year."
Balkin hopes to become an Olympic athlete. His training is centered on the Olympic Trials, scheduled for July 15-23 in Indianapolis. He participated in the 1980 trials but did not make the finals. And in 1984 he made the finals, but finished 11th. He has changed his training technique to compensate for the mental and physical burnout that can accompany an Olympic year, he said.
"I'm lightening up on the training, running more approaches, and doing more technically oriented things," Balkin said. "I have a lot better technique. My body is stronger than ever before and my running is faster than ever before. Consequently those should correlate into a higher jump but that's only if I'm technically sound.
"In the past, I had rarely prepared ahead for the competitions. This year I have a four to six week period where I want to jump well and then I'm going back into the training mode. Then I'll come out again in May and I'll be ready to jump well at that time.
"I may lay low all year but when the Olympic trials come around, I'll be at my best. If I improve two or three percent, I'll be among the best in the world."
That minimal improvement could come with a refinement in technique, Balkin said. Sneider believes that the best way to learn is to teach. For the past two years, Balkin has been an assistant track coach at Glendale College.
"He inspires these kids a lot," Glendale Coach Tom McMurray said. "He trains with the student-athletes and they see how hard he works and how it pays off. Sometimes people have injuries and people give up. But he's never given up. He's a great inspiration to our program."
Said Sneider: "The way to learn it faster than anything else is to teach it. He can almost improve 25 to 50% in a year in terms of understanding technique."
Balkin has learned technique from the inside out. He has studied more than the physical techniques of jumping and has learned to visualize success.
"I'll do a lot of that this week before the Sunkist meet," Balkin said. "But the meet that I'm going to take seriously this year in American track and field is the Olympic Trials."
Said Sneider: "I think he has a very good chance of making the Olympic team if he does not overtrain, continues to believe, and peaks himself for the nationals. He has a tremendous ability to image. The most important thing is that once he sees himself over the bar, he can do it. He is a very intellectually developed athlete. Put him in the right circumstances and if he wants it bad enough, he is frightening."