Had Becky Nelson been born just a decade later, we just might be celebrating her as an Olympic athlete.
Instead the track athlete arrived at Mead High School in the days when girls sports weren’t exactly overlooked, but weren’t taken seriously, either.
“I found a flyer announcing an All-County girls track and field meet,” Nelson, now Becky Clark, recalled. “We didn’t have anything like the Greater Spokane League in those days, and everyone from every school was invited to compete. We had teams from as far away as Coulee Dam and Brewster all competing.”
Clark showed the flyer to her coach and offered to round up enough girls to make a team.
That’s how Clark and the Panthers arrived at Medical Lake High School in the late spring of 1968, setting the stage for something spectacular. The self-taught high jumper cleared 5-feet-8 inches to win the event and set a school record that still stands today.
Proving it, however, has been a monumental challenge that required more proof than the times generally provided.
“I had been working for about a year teaching myself the Fosbury Flop,” Clark recalled. “Back in those times I would either do the Western Roll or the Flop depending on what the landing pit was like. Some were just sawdust and I couldn’t risk flopping into a sawdust pit. I could only flop somewhere they had a foam pit.”
That a high school girl was going over the high jump bar backward was something unseen. This was months before the Oregon State high jumper won the NCAA Championship with a leap of 7-2½ and even more before he changed the high jumping landscape with his Olympic gold medal performance in Mexico City.
“To the best of my knowledge there were only three of us doing the flop – Dick Fosbury, Debbie Brill, the Canadian national champ, and me,” Clark said. “That day I flopped and I had been really getting the technique down.”
“I remember that she came over to me and asked me how tall I was,” Mead coach Joanne Christopher remembered. “I told her I was 5-8. She smiled at me and said, ‘Then I’m going to go jump over your head.’
“I remember her making that jump. It was like it all happened in slow motion. Becky was tall, and she was so graceful when she jumped. It was like watching a gazelle going over the bar,” Christopher said.
“That was one of the best jumps I’ve ever made in my life,” Clark said.
To put an exclamation point on the jump, Christopher kicked off her shoes and walked over to the pit to stand underneath the bar. Sure enough, she’d jumped over her coach’s head.
That recollection was crucial.
For decades the Mead High gym featured a display listing the boys and girls school records. Clark’s 5-8 was there for all to see and admire.
But when the school was remodeled, the display was taken down. What Clark didn’t know until later, when the display came down her school record was lost.
The display of school records never made it back to a school wall when the new high school opened, so the lost jump wasn’t readily apparent.
Clark’s brother, Dave Nelson, was the one to notice the change. Checking the list of Mead school records online, he saw that the girls high jump record was listed at 5-6. More than that, his sister wasn’t even listed on the list of Top 10 all-time jumps.
Clark asked questions. The answers, however, were lacking.
Part of the problem was this track meet happened four years before the introduction of Title IX, meaning that it could be treated like a sasquatch sighting – did it really happen?
Track and field meets for girls weren’t considered news in those days. There was no record of the event in any of the local newspapers, including this one. Official meet results were nowhere to be found.
The fact so many people took note of Clark’s record in the moment and in the years after? Didn’t matter.
Current girls track coach Dori Whitford, herself a Mead grad, remembered the record from the wall display. Mead coaches used to take their high jumpers to the board and had them stand underneath it – telling them this is what they had to jump to break the record.
None of that mattered.
Mt. Spokane coach Annette Helling, who coached at Mead, used to publish a track yearbook that listed all of the school records – including Clark’s.
“I called Annette, and she said she still had all of those yearbooks and she would go down to her basement and find one,” Clark said. “She took a picture of it for me and I forwarded that to Dori. I thought that would handle it, and I didn’t think anything more about it.”
In a nutshell, it didn’t.
There were back-and-forth conversations with Mead school officials.
Last year at her 50th class reunion, Clark was given a petition signed by her classmates asking that the school restore her rightful place atop the leaderboard.
That, too, wasn’t enough to get the record back.
And that’s when Christopher stepped in.
The former coach, now living in Tacoma, got on a plane and showed up at the school to verify the record. And she wasn’t taking “No” for an answer. She had to sign an affidavit testifying to the veracity of the record – including the meet had met qualifying standards like using a new bar and metal tape to both make certain the bar was straight and was set to the correct height.
Talking to her, you realize that if it took bringing in Dick Fosbury himself to verify the record, Christopher was ready, willing and able to find him and get him there.
“I sent my affidavit to them by registered mail,” the former coach said. “I didn’t hear anything for a while, so I emailed them.”
The next day, the record was back.
For Christopher, it was about defending one of her former athletes. But it was also something more.
“Becky could have been an Olympic athlete – in fact she was sick before the Olympic Trials in 1968 and couldn’t compete,” Christopher said. “She taught herself the high jump. She taught herself the Fosbury Flop. She deserved the recognition.”
What’s more, the girls, who competed in a time before Title IX began to balance the ledger between boys and girls sports, cannot and should not be forgotten.
“When I came to Mead in 1966 as a new teacher they were so happy to have a young physical education teacher who was willing to coach (girls),” she said. “I knew just enough to get them on the field. That particular class, 1968, was a group of incredible female athletes. I didn’t realize just how good they really were until we were able to compete against other schools.
“We won that meet, and I almost went deaf with all the screaming and shouting they did on the bus ride home.”
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