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ARTFULLY DONE : USC High Jumper Ernie Shelton Never Quite Cleared 7 Feet, but He Has Carved a Niche for Himself as Sculptor

Times Staff Writer

Ernie Shelton was supposed to be the world’s first 7-foot high jumper. Back in the 1950s, people expected the 6-foot 2-inch 170-pound USC student to become the first man to break that mark.

For as long as he had been throwing his body over a bar, Shelton had dreamed of jumping 7 feet. In junior high, when his teacher went around the classroom asking students what their goals were, Shelton said he wanted to be the first 7-foot high jumper. He put a mark on his bedroom wall at 7, at a time when he was jumping barely 5-feet 6-inches.

“It was kind of a dream,” Shelton said.

Shelton never jumped 7 feet. He never got the world record. He never made the Olympic team.

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But Shelton came so close. He jumped 6 feet 11 inches routinely. He tried to clear 7 feet about 90 times, always with the same result.

Then, in the 1956 U.S. Olympic track and field trials at the Coliseum, with Shelton looking on, Charlie Dumas of Compton became the first 7-foot jumper.

Shelton ran off the track, avoiding the throng of reporters and photographers. He didn’t make the Olympic team.

Now 55 and living in Hollywood Hills, Shelton remembers the pain.

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“It hurt for a long time,” Shelton said. “In fact, I couldn’t even watch sports for a while. I think it was the idea that I had been on the campaign (for 7 feet) for so long. If I had been far away from it, if I hadn’t even come close, it would have been a different story. But I should have jumped it.”

Shelton is better known these days as a sculptor, although it could be argued that he was an artist in the high jump, too.

One of Shelton’s works, a statue of flier Amelia Earhart in North Hollywood Park, has recently been refurbished.

How tall is the statue?

Seven feet.

Seven feet isn’t given a second thought by today’s high jumpers. The world record is 7 feet 11 5/8 inches. Many high school jumpers have cleared 7 feet. Female jumpers are coming close to it.

But in the ‘50s, 7 feet was the high-jump equivalent of the 4-minute mile. Shelton still believes he had a 7-foot jump in him.

“I should have done it,” Shelton said. “My first attempt at 7 feet was during my sophomore year at USC (in 1953) and I almost made it.

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“Thinking back, having been so close to it, I probably built up some kind of mental barrier. I was certainly capable of doing it.”

One time, Shelton thought he made it. It was a windy day at Ann Arbor, Mich., in the 1954 National Collegiate Athletic Assn. meet. The wind blew so hard, two officials had to hold the bar on the standards until Shelton took off.

“I figured I had cleared it because I didn’t feel anything going over,” Shelton was quoted as saying in The Times in 1955. “Pretty soon, the bar fell down. I was told later the wind blew it off. All I know was that it didn’t stay up there.”

Shelton’s quest for 7 feet came to an end after the ’56 Olympic trials. When Dumas set the record and Shelton missed the team, Shelton lost his desire. He competed in a few more meets, but he didn’t wait for the next Olympics.

“After the (trials), the magic was gone,” Shelton said. “I had been on the campaign since I was a little kid. . . . I just kind of lost interest in jumping.”

Shelton’s high-jumping career was not without accomplishment, however. He was the NCAA champion twice, the world champion in 1954 and ’55, and the Pan American Games champion in 1955.

Shelton says that if he had grown up in the modern era of high jumping, he would have cleared the 7-foot barrier fairly easily.

High jumping today is vastly different than the sport Shelton knew. High jumpers now take off from a runway made of a firm, synthetic material. High jumpers of Shelton’s era took off from a natural surface. If it rained, getting a firm footing was difficult, if at all possible.

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High jumpers today take a long run to the bar, building as much speed as possible. Shelton took seven steps and jumped.

In many meets Shelton participated in, the standards for the bar would not reach 7 feet. He would often have to wait for officials to prop them up somehow.

And high jumpers didn’t have the luxury of flopping down into a fluffy cushion after jumping. The landing pad back then was a pile of sawdust or sand close to the ground.

Jumpers had to be concerned about landing. If the Fosbury Flop--the technique of going over the bar backward used by almost all jumpers today--had been introduced in Shelton’s time, instead of in the 1960s by Dick Fosbury, the landing pits would have made the technique too dangerous, Shelton said.

“If you did a Fosbury Flop, you’d break your neck,” Shelton said. “You had to break your fall with your hands. Actually, I liked it, and I’ll tell you why.

“It really feels great, when you’re in shape, and you jump and come back down to ground level. It’s like you’re flying.”

After Shelton stopped jumping, he began to pursue art. He graduated from USC in 1956 with a degree in design, and returned in 1968 to get a master’s in sculpture.

But as a struggling young sculptor, Shelton worked in a bakery and also took bit parts in TV productions.

He was hired at L.A. Valley College in 1970 and taught sculpting until 1984. In the ‘70s, he kept his hand in the profession with commissions for various churches in the Los Angeles area.

Besides the Earhart statue, Shelton created the “The Lady of the Angels,” on the corner of Wilshire and Harvard.

Shelton has also gone Hollywood. He worked on many figures that can now be seen at Disney’s Epcot Center in Florida. He also helped design the suit used by the lead character in the film “RoboCop.”

Looking at Shelton’s work, you can see the influence of his athletic career. Many of his sculptures show a great deal of motion. Shelton acknowledges the parallel.

“I like figures in motion,” he said. “I guess that comes from my athletic background. There’s a lot of movement, a lot of motion in my work.”

Shelton pursues sculpting much as he pursued 7 feet. Just as he looked up at the mark on his bedroom wall and visualized soaring over the bar, Shelton visualizes his art works before hand ever meets chisel.

“I lived high jumping,” he said. “I worked hard at it, both physically and mentally. I think you have to do the same thing with sculpting. You really have to create that visual image beforehand.

“I go at art with the same enthusiasm I had in high jumping.”

Shelton plans to open a studio soon in Central California.

His hair is gray, but he weighs only 2 pounds more than when he flew over bars. Now, he is clearing bars in the art world. And just as in his high jumping days, Shelton hasn’t flopped.


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