47 Years After Broken Dreams, Sternberg, Shinnick Cling to Hope
Pole vaulter Brian Sternberg and long jumper Phil Shinnick shared one of the United States' greatest ever non-Olympic days of track and field glory 47 years ago this week. The two men, teammates and roommates at the University of Washington, set world records in their specialties within an hour of each other.
An unprecedented tangled tale of tragedy and turmoil has trailed the two men in the nearly half century since. Sternberg would add an inch to his pole vault record a few weeks later, but he's spent the last 47 years a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. Shinnick owned his long jump record for approximately 50 minutes, about one for every year he's fought to get it recognized after it was disallowed.
"What I remember mostly is the meal we had on the way to Modesto," says Sternberg, who drove with Shinnick from the Pacific-8 track and field meet in Berkeley that afternoon to the California Relays in Modesto, known for its scorching temperatures and as the inspiration for "American Graffiti."
"We had burgers and shakes," Sternberg says. "What athlete now or then trains on burgers and shakes? That's not normal when you're training. And to think we went out and set the records we did after that. Oh, to be young again."
The Pacific-8 meet had been a disappointment for both, Shinnick says. But just as they walked into the sticky 85-degree heat of the stadium at Modesto Junior College at 7:12 p.m., well after the burgers and shakes had kicked in, he started to feel that he was ready to do something special.
"I turned to Brian and said, 'I feel like I could set a world record today,'" Shinnick said in an interview with FanHouse. "He said, 'If you will, then I will.'''
That wasn't as much a boast on Sternberg's part as it might seem. One of the first true proponents of the then-high-tech fiberglass pole, he'd already set a world record earlier in the year.
It was a stretch for Shinnick, however, because he'd never had a legal jump of more than 25-5 feet to that point. In Berkeley earlier in the day he'd had a 26-1 jump that officials ruled foul, although Shinnick says to this day that it was a fair jump. And he was lucky just to make it to Modesto on time -- the jumping, featuring former (and future) world record holder Ralph Boston -- had already begun when Shinnick and Sternberg showed up.
For that reason, Shinnick was slotted to jump after Boston, the man who had broken the long jump record held for a quarter of a century by Jesse Owens. Although Shinnick only had time for a quick warmup and walk through, it proved to be the best warmup of his life. And he took a little break afterward.
"I laid down on the grass for a minute before I jumped," Shinnick says. "And I felt great. I felt like God was smiling on me."
Sternberg, whose competition had yet to start, picked up some blades of grass, dropped them to make sure there wasn't a prevailing wind, then signaled his roommate he was good to go.
"I ran down the runway, and it felt like I was in slow motion," Shinnick says. "I felt fast. When I was in the air it seemed like maybe I'd hit the cement at the end of the pit. I'd jumped over the pit in high school, so I knew what it felt like."
When Shinnick landed, he was closer to the edge of the cement at 30 feet than anyone had expected. He says his left foot was at the 27-10 1/2 mark, his right foot at 27-5. Boston, who was standing near Sternberg near the long jump pit said, "That's a world record," and congratulated him for eclipsing Soviet jumper Igor Ter-Ovanesyan's standing mark of 27-3 1/4.
The trouble was, Shinnick's Pac-8 credentials weren't enough that anyone in Modesto had any real clue who he was. He was a sophomore at the University of Washington and hadn't competed in his freshman year -- the NCAA didn't allow freshmen to compete in any collegiate sports in those days. So he was in just his fourth or fifth competition since graduating from high school in Spokane almost two years earlier. Most of the jumpers knew him, but the officials didn't. He certainly wasn't somebody who should be breaking world records. All of a sudden, instead of celebration time it was inquisition time.
"The officials didn't know what to do," Shinnick says. "They measured and re-measured. Each time they did, they kept breaking the sand where my right foot had landed, and little by little it went from 27-5 to 27-4. "They took me into the stands and said, 'Who are you?' I said, 'Well, who are you? I don't know you, either.' I had to yell at them to stop re-measuring and breaking more sand each time."
It turned out that the off-the-field inquisition was the least of the irregularities surrounding the jump. The event's officials had been told that Boston was the only jumper who had a chance at a record, so no wind gauge was in use when Shinnick jumped. That wasn't unusual in 1963.
Earlier that year, the International Amateur Athletics Federation, the governing body of world track and field, had instituted rules calling for wind gauges to be used on all running events up to 200 meters or 220 yards in addition to the long jump and triple jump (sometimes called the broad jump and the hop, step and jump, respectively, in those days). The new rules supplanted rules from 1936 that didn't mandate wind gauges. It was a time of transition, and many, if not most, track and field facilities hadn't added additional wind gauges.
And because the meet's organizers deemed that Boston was the only long jumper capable of a record, the venue's only wind gauge was trotted out for him and for no other jumper. Shinnick was going to suffer from that neglect: The IAAF's new 1963 rules said his 27-4 jump couldn't be a record without a wind gauge reading.
The best moment in Phil Shinnick's career had just become his worst.
By way of comparison, Sternberg's night was smooth. He had a couple of misses, but then he made a quick final sprint down the runway, planted his pole and jackknifed his body over the bar at 16-7. This record stood.
"I don't really remember celebrating much at all," Sternberg said. "First Phil didn't get credit for a record he deserved, and then we had to get down south for the Los Angeles Times meet the next day."
Later in the summer, Sternberg would get up to 16-8 in a meet in Compton, Calif. But five weeks after the record at Modesto, the former gymnast was working out on a trampoline with another UW gymnast, Bob Hall, when he landed badly after trying a double-back somersault with a twist, a jump he'd done effortlessly for years.
He landed on his neck. And he knew immediately that something was horribly wrong.
"I don't remember everything about that day," Sternberg says, "but I landed right in the middle of the trampoline where no one could reach me. And I yelled at the top of my voice. I knew it was bad right away.
"What I didn't know was how bad. When I realized just how bad it was, it came as a shock."
The first doctors Sternberg saw confirmed paralysis and thought that he might not survive long. Later, the prognosis was upgraded. He might have another five years to live.
Shinnick thought he knew his buddy better than that. At the same time, Shinnick took the accident hard.
"(Brian) was voted the best athlete in North America that year," Shinnick says. "We were roommates. We were very close. When he broke his neck, it had a very bad effect on me. I lost my bearings."
Brian Sternberg lost just about everything. A world class athlete, now he couldn't move. There was pressure on his lungs so that he could barely speak above a whisper. Unable to care for himself, he moved back to his parents' home in the Queen Anne section of Seattle. Harold (now deceased) and Helen Sternberg would now be caring for their adult son.
"You don't ever come to terms with something like that," Sternberg says in looking back half a century. "You learn to take things pretty much one day at a time."
It would be easy for Sternberg to be bitter that so much was taken from him. He isn't. He doesn't second-guess his work on the trampoline, which was supposed to be in preparation for a trip to pole vault in the Soviet Union. Instead, he chooses to look at his gymnastics work as what separated him from the rest of the pole vaulters of his generation.
"Vaulting really is gymnastics," he says. "You need the agility and the suppleness that you get from gymnastics. That was a big difference for me. The other was the (fiberglass) pole.
"With the wooden pole, you always had to vault with your hands together; if you didn't, you'd wind up swinging from two points as you went toward the bar. With the fiberglass pole, you could separate your hands and that helped. Vaulting is physics. You race down the runway, then you use the pole to change horizontal momentum into vertical."
Vaulters defy gravity, if for ever so brief a time.
Now 67, Brian Sternberg has defied time. One surgery in 1996 and another in 2003 have relieved some pressure on his lungs. His speech isn't confined to a whisper anymore.
His dentist has designed a mouthpiece Sternberg can use to type on a computer, so he can communicate by email. He's always been a huge football fan, and he has a special spot at UW's Husky Stadium that he can get to in his wheelchair.
There were no more records for him after 1963, but he's never stopped rooting for his old friend Phil Shinnick to get his due.
"I really hope he gets the record recognized," Sternberg says. "He deserves it."
Sternberg isn't alone in wishing Shinnick well in his pursuit. Former Cuban 400 and 800 meter Olympic champion Alberto Juantorena has pressed Shinnick's case with the IAAF. So has two-time Olympic 1500 meter champion Sebastian Coe. Add Olympic champion long jumper Lynn Davies to the list.
Not that Shinnick has let his pursuit of the long jump record stop him from pursuing life. He was one of the driving forces in the West to agitate for bringing China back into the Olympic Games. He pushed for athletic détente between the U.S. and the USSR. He helped found and lead Athletes United for Peace. He served on the International Olympic Committee's committee on Peace and Sport. He was jailed for several weeks in 1974 for contempt of court when he refused to submit his fingerprints, a handwriting sample and a hair sample to the FBI during that organization's hunt for Patty Hearst. Shinnick was an associate of sports activist Jack Scott, who was also linked to the Hearst case. Scott, famous for spearheading the hiring of minority coaches in the 1970s when he was Oberlin College's athletic director, was alleged to have helped Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) elude a federal manhunt. No allegations were ever proved.
Shinnick is reluctant now to talk about Hearst and the SLA. The FBI seemed to think -- but was unable to prove -- that Shinnick visited a farmhouse where Hearst was hiding.
On a more mainstream note, Shinnick graduated from Washington, earned a doctorate from the University of California and taught sociology for a while at Rutgers. He then moved on to medical research, specializing in acupuncture and Oriental medicine. He's gone on to become director of the Research Institute of Global Physiology, Behavior and Treatment in New York where one of his clients, appropriately enough, is the current long jump world record holder, Michael Powell.
Shinnick's supporters in the long jump community are of the die-hard variety. Grant Birkinshaw is a New Zealand native who long-jumped for the University of Washington in the 1970s, in part because he admired Shinnick. Birkinshaw started a campaign in the 1990s to get Shinnick's 1963 long jump recognized as a record. In November 2003, with Birkinshaw and Ralph Boston, who had driven up from Georgia, Shinnick presented his case in North Carolina to the USATF (United States Track and Field), the governing body for track in this country.
"I saw the jump," Boston said at the hearing, "and it was real."
Forty years after the fact, Shinnick got a major bit of satisfaction. His jump was accepted as the American -- but not the IAAF world -- record for a 16-month period. Boston's 27-4 1/2 jump in 1964 displaced Shinnick's 27-4 record.
The evidence that swung sympathy for Shinnick's case was substantial. There was not only Boston's testimony but that of the meet officials at the California Relays in Modesto. On May 26, 1963, the day after Shinnick's long jump, the officials, independent of the IAAF, voted to accept the jump as a world record.
"There is no reason in the world why the record shouldn't be recognized," said one of the event officials, Dr. Hilmer Lodge, at the time. "I was right there and can testify there was hardly any wind."
As to the matter of the wind gauge, it was in use for the 220-yard dash at the time of the jump and the wind was reported well within the allowable wind speed. Some of Boston's jumps that night were wind-aided, but two were not.
Newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner and Sacramento Bee all reported that the wind was either negligible or non-existent at the time of Shinnick's 27-4 jump.
Writing in the Bee, Arthur Robinson spoke for many who were there when he said "it wasn't a wind. It wasn't even a breeze. Nor was it a zephyr. Even a hummingbird's feather would have dropped to the ground without drifting in its descent at the moment young Shinnick made his phenomenal jump."
After his successful hearing in North Carolina, Shinnick said he had every reason to suppose that it was just a matter of time before the IAAF would follow the USATF's affirmation of his record long jump.
It hasn't happened. The paperwork was forwarded to the IAAF in Paris, and yet Shinnick was unable to get a hearing with the organization's president, Lamine Diack. The U.S. hasn't been popular with the IAAF for some years now because of a history of the late reporting or non-reporting of failed drug tests on the part of U.S. athletes, leading some to believe the IAAF isn't particularly interested in championing anything American.
Convinced they weren't going to get a chance to speak with Diack without taking direct action, Shinnick and another ally, former world record holder and Olympic 400 meter champion Lee Evans, simply showed up at Diack's office in Budapest at 6 o'clock one morning. When Diack arrived at 6:30, he was none too pleased.
"He was angry I was in the room," Shinnick says. "He didn't want us there. He said he would take it to the executive council, which he did. But he made what is called a summary judgment on the case, which is the equivalent of throwing it in the waste paper basket."
The United States has been represented in the IAAF since 1999 by Bob Hersh, a New York lawyer and longtime stadium voice at track and field events around the world. Shinnick says he's been told that Hersh has obstructed his case within the IAAF.
A call by FanHouse to Hersh to get his side of the story wasn't returned. In 1996, Hersh made his position clear in a quote given to The Seattle Times.
"I still do not believe there is any basis for recognizing this record," Hersh told the Times, "because there was no wind gauge at the time. That was at the time, and still is, a requirement."
That view, of course, is open to some interpretation. It was early in the track and field season, and facilities around the world were trying to adapt to change. As the 1963 rules were being phased in, the 1936 rules had a provision for recognizing a jump without a wind gauge. Six officials needed to certify that the jump was legal. Birkinshaw had obtained the certification of six officials at the Modesto event. He and Shinnick had included the certifications among the papers they presented to the IAAF.
There have been other track and field marks that have qualified as records after the fact, although none that have taken as long as almost half a century. In 1950, the IAAF reinstated South African runner Daniel Joubert's 1931 world record-tying 100-yard dash.
At the USATF level, the animosity between Shinnick and Hersh was enough that Hersh was recused from having anything to do with Shinnick's actions. Not so at the IAAF level, however.
On the other hand, if Diack were on board, Hersh's position wouldn't be an issue. Shinnick has come to realize that he may be playing a waiting game until Diack, who is 76, steps down as the IAAF's top man.
Is Shinnick's reaching out to the Chinese and the Soviets when it was still unpopular working against him now? It's difficult to say.
"I used to be really upset about (the IAAF not recognizing his world record)," Shinnick says. "But I'm not as upset as I used to be. The record will get approved eventually, if I outlive them. Why give up on the truth?"
It's a record that stands up well over time. A jump of 27-4 (8.33 meters) would have finished second in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As Shinnick points out, since the advent of mandatory drug testing, long jumps in excess of his 27-4 are relatively difficult to come by.
For Sternberg, there are no drugs that markedly improve his condition. There are only surgeries.
In 1996, a Nevada physician, Dr. Harry Goldsmith, removed scar tissue from Sternberg's damaged spinal cord and loosened his stomach lining and wrapped it around the spinal cord, in hope it would form a natural adhesive and stimulate his circulation. This enabled Sternberg to breathe more deeply and remain upright for longer periods of time.
Five years ago another surgeon removed part of one of his ruptured spinal disks and replaced it with a piece of bone.
"That's really helped my flexibility," says Sternberg, who has a workout program and still goes through physical therapy daily. "Things are getting better."
Sternberg lives downstairs in the same building as his mother. He still requires full-time nursing care, which for the last 18 years, Catherine Murray-Palmer has provided. She was one year behind him at Shoreline High just north of Seattle, although the two didn't know each other at that time. They are planning to be married.
"The surgeries are improving my quality of life," Sternberg said. "Before the (1996) surgery, you wouldn't have been able to hear me talk."
Now, however, he can talk and scratch his nose. That's no world record, but it's progress, both incremental and important, for he remembers what it was like not being able to scratch. He couldn't do anything but wait for the itch to go away.
Still, Sternberg always remembered how to scratch. It's one of those trivial memories that overlooks the significant.
Like burgers and shakes on the road to Modesto with your teammate.
"What I did back in 1963, what we both did, seems a lifetime ago," Sternberg says. "It was another life, another world."