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Likely to be the first woman to jump seven feet, Amy Acuff began her career not under a coach's careful guidance, but with mail order books and videos
By Kim Goss
Published: Winter 1999
When Amy Acuff decided to take high jumping seriously, she knew she needed a qualified coach. Amy lived in Corpus Christi, Texas, and after a few inquiries she learned the best local coach was Sue Humphrey. Of course, everything is big in Texas, so "local" turned out to be several hundred miles away in Austin. Undaunted, Amy ordered several video tapes and books about high jumping and racked up some hefty long distance phone calls to Humphrey in Austin. Her study-at-home method helped channel her natural ability on the playing field and also earned her the nickname "The Mail Order High Jumper." Of course, you can only go so far with the help of the phone company and the mailman, so after high school Amy packed her bags and headed off to California's UCLA, where she knew she would receive top coaching and, of course, a great education. As planned, she got both. Amy graduated last year with a degree in biology and will be taking the medical school entrance exam this year. As for athletics, she has officially jumped 6' 6 3/4" and won the prestigious World University Games. At only 22 years of age she earned distinction as one of the world's premiere high jumpers. Although the stress of studying to become a doctor usually means putting one's athletic goals on hold, this was not the case with Amy. She excelled not only on the field but in her studies, and "burn-out" was never in her vocabulary. She thrived so well that she plans to continue both endeavors during her more grueling pre-med work. Amy is certainly a woman who is taking the term "overachiever" to new heights. "I want to be the first woman to jump seven feet, and I want to do it in the year 2000 at the Sydney Olympics," she says with blunt confidence and without any fear that her athletic aspirations will interfere with her studies. And as if being a model athlete and model student isn't enough, the slender blonde and blue-eyed Amy also has aspirations of becoming a fashion model.
The European Connection
If there's any mistake Amy has made in her life, it's being born outside Europe. In spite of the fact that US athletes have won the lion's share of track and field medals in the Olympics, it is not a popular spectator sport in the United States. This is especially true when compared to Europe. As a result, during the summer most of our top track athletes go to Europe to compete. "The reason we go is to make a living," says Amy. "The main European meets are in the summer, and those are the meets that pay. There are maybe three meets in the US that pay any money, and it's not as much as you can make in Europe." In addition to being able to earn a living and finance her medical school tuition, Amy enjoys the celebrity status that American track and field athletes receive in Europe. "The Europeans treat you like royalty, and it's really a pleasant surprise when people on the street recognize you." Amy believes that one factor that will help our track and field program is increased exposure through television. "In Europe they'll televise a whole meet, show the athletes warming up, talk about what happened at the last meet and the marks, and analyze technique. It's great!" In this regard, Amy believes that the televised challenge match between Michael Johnson and Donovan Bailey was a step in the right direction for marketing the sport. "It totally struck a cord with the American people," says Amy. "They loved it, and it brought a lot of attention to track and field." Amy says that another reason Europeans enjoy track and field is that the fans are more involved in the statistics of track and field. "They know what their marks are and who's doing well. You need that for fans to identify with a track-and-field athlete," says Amy. "Americans were really great statisticians when it came to baseball 20 or 30 years ago, but now fans have moved more towards entertainment, such as watching these characters in the NBA." (And in case you're curious, yes, Amy can dunk a basketball.) Speaking of stats, the world standard in the high jump for women is 6' 10 1/4". However, Amy believes that the women's high jump is experiencing a "changing of the guard" because jumpers hit their peak in their late 20s and early 30s, and the current world record holder is about to exceed that age range. "Right now it's pretty much wide open, and there's not really anyone who has stepped up to assume the role of the dominant jumper yet."
When Beauty Meets Brawn
To become the best requires commitment, so Amy approaches her sport as a full-time job. "There's only a week out of the whole year when there's no workout, and when I'm not competing I'll be running and lifting." But in the history of high jump training, Amy admits that such discipline and dedication was considered the exception rather than the rule. "In the past there was more of a laissez-faire attitude toward high jump training, and a lot of the jumping workout would be occupied by sunbathing on the high jump pit," says Amy. She recalls one story of two German high jumpers who entered a competition in the 70s. When they found out that the meet was going to take several hours, they left the meet and went down to a local coffee shop and had a few cigarettes and several leisurely cups of coffee. Says Amy, "When they came back to the meet they found that they had misjudged the time and there was only one jumper left before them, so they had to warm up in a hurry. They ended up jumping pretty well because they were great natural talents, but these were athletes who really didn't take care of their bodies, and you wonder what they could have done if they had taken better care of themselves." A major portion of Amy's training is the Olympic lifts, but she also performs several auxiliary lifts for the lower back, abs and the upper body. "It's important to keep the upper body strong for coordination," says Amy. "At the takeoff you really have to move the upper body--you can't just be a limp noodle." She also says it's important for jumpers to perform specialized exercises for their ankles. "You get a lot of power from your feet, and if your ankles are hurting you're going to suffer. I do all kinds of ankle strengthening, such as picking up sand and running on the toes to strengthen the arches, surgical tubing exercises, and rocker boards--I work on my ankles a lot." For younger jumpers, Amy believes in the importance of being exposed to a variety of sports. "You learn a lot through other sports and through competition. It's just like your academic studies--you need to become a student of your sport and learn all there is about it. The high jump takes a lot of technique, but you can't stop there. You need to learn the mechanics, the physics and the psychology of the jump to really succeed." Amy has given quite a bit of thought to the psychology of sports and believes there are some truths behind the stereotypes about track and field athletes. She says that sprinters are confident, bordering on cocky; throwers are the jokers and are laid-back; pole vaulters are the daredevils, and distance runners tend to engage in strange rituals and habits that she feels border on "just plain weird." She also says that because decathletes have an appreciation for all the events, they tend to make a lot of friends and, she adds, "have the nicest bodies."
Posing for Perfection
Although her plate is full with athletics and studies, Amy does have a few outside interests, such as modeling. She is currently represented by Click, and Amy says the agency likes the idea that she is an athlete. Although most women have a hard time getting modeling assignments because they're too short, Amy has the opposite problem because she's 6' 2" and the ideal height of a model is 5' 9". Her height makes her too tall for runway work and sometimes makes it difficult for her to fit into some of the clothes. "What I can do in