Ukrainian Vladimir Yashchenko is lifted in the air by fellow athletes after setting a new world record in the high jump of 7 feet, 7.75 inches, in 1977 at the University of Richmond's track

Back Then

How high can you go?

Richmond was the site of a world record high jump in 1977. The jumper’s technique challenged the dominance of the now-ubiquitous Fosbury Flop.

Eight years after Neil Armstrong made his one giant leap onto the surface of the moon, another leap vaulted the University of Richmond onto sports pages around the world.

Admittedly less history-altering than Armstrong’s hop, this July 1977 leap during a track and field meet on campus nonetheless set a new world record in the high jump. It also, in the words of Sports Illustrated, “rekindled the debate” thought to be settling in the discipline: How should high jumpers jump?

The record-setter was Ukrainian Vladimir Yashchenko, who was representing the Soviet Union during a junior meet against U.S. athletes held on a track where Robins Stadium is now.

For a week, approximately 150 of the best athletes age 19 and under from the two Cold War rivals lived in residence halls on campus, toured Busch Gardens, and swapped T-shirts. Fred Hardy, Richmond’s track coach, commented on the Soviets buying piles of blue jeans, which were then unavailable in the Soviet Union, but what seemed to strike him most was the camaraderie among the athletes.

“The kids had no trouble relating,” he said. “Often, members of the opposing teams practiced together.”

Safe to say that no one expected a new world record to come out of the meet, but that’s exactly what happened when the 18-year-old Yashchenko ran toward a bar set at 7 feet, 7.75 inches (2.33 meters), sprang skyward off his left leg, rolled his body stomach-down in a graceful arc, and cleared the bar with his trailing foot.

Yashchenko became known as ‘the last king of the straddle.’

Yashchenko’s style was called the straddle. Although it was a classic technique that long dominated the discipline, it had recently been eclipsed by the backward style of American Dick Fosbury, who won Olympic gold in Mexico City in 1968. After that, most elite jumpers began using the Fosbury Flop, as his technique was known.

Yashchenko’s new record — and the setting of a new women’s record the same year by another jumper using the straddle — forced athletes and coaches to take notice, but the Fosbury Flop continued to dominate and remains the technique fans picture today when they think of high jumping. Yashchenko, who went on to break his own record twice, became known as “the last king of the straddle.”

Bill Jordan, R’53, was there on the record-setting day as an assistant UR track coach helping run the meet. He saw the jump from afar and knew it was high, but he didn’t realize he’d just witnessed a world record until a loud cheer went up and the announcement went out over the public address system. “That was how I found out,” said Jordan, who is now retired and enjoying his farm in Northern Virginia.

The Fosbury Flop was harder to teach because of its more complex step pattern on the approach, he said, but another critical development that made it possible was the landing surface. In the old days, leapers landed in a sawdust pit, a recipe for serious injury if you’re using the Fosbury Flop. As landing pads developed, got softer, and rose higher, “you could land any way you wanted,” he said.

But credit Yashchenko’s talent and fitness, he said. “If you don’t have any spring in your legs, all the technique in the world won’t get you very high.”