Acuff looks to the past to try to improve future

Updated: January 26, 2009, 4:51 PM ET
Associated Press

Before she had taken her first jump in the dreary, misting rain in the Bird's Nest, Amy Acuff knew how the story would end.

Even if she pulled off a minor miracle, somehow slashed through the drizzle and cleared the height she would need to advance to the Olympic finals, there would be nothing for her there.

"I knew it wasn't in my realm," she said.

She failed to advance and finished 19th that night -- a night that will be better remembered as the night both American relay teams dropped the baton in qualifying than a low point for Acuff, the American high achiever who had beaten the odds simply by making it to her fourth Olympics.

She is 33 now and will almost certainly not go for a fifth. But she isn't quitting, either.

She overcame her expected post-Olympic depression and soon after returning home, she picked up the phone and called a man she had heard of but didn't really know.

Bob Myers was a renowned coach at Arizona in the 1980s, an assistant for the U.S. Olympic team in 1996, widely thought of as one of the top technicians in the high jump game in his day.

She asked Myers for help, and together, they are working to give Acuff a more fitting send-off than what she endured in Beijing -- and maybe brush some cobwebs off the lessons that Myers once used to turn his college kids into stars.

"I was kind of surprised she contacted me," Myers said. "It was definitely nice. Nice to be remembered."

About 20 years ago, Myers left the fast-paced, heavily traveled life as a college and international track coach to take a job as dean of health, physical education and athletics at Solano Community College, located about halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento.

"We felt like it was time to make a family change," Myers said.

Acuff is thinking about the family route, too. She has already set up a successful acupuncture and herbal therapy business that will help support her and her husband, pole vaulter Tye Harvey, when she retires.

That day is coming soon.

But first, there is this business of putting a happy ending on a career that deserves a better finish than that dismal day in Beijing.

On Friday, Acuff will compete in the Millrose Games in New York, where she has won four times. National and world championships are set for summer.

"I don't have any specific goals, per se, and that's kind of different from my usual approach," Acuff said. "This year, I just want to do things very intuitively and follow my gut on training."

Enter Myers.

"Really, she just kind of wanted some advice," he said. "She knows what works for her. She just wanted my opinion."

He has made some technical changes in Acuff's jump, the Xs and Os of which, honestly, would be better spelled out in a high jumping magazine than here. Suffice it to say that Acuff feels "more like a jumper now," her lift from the ground less a slingshot effect and more of an up-and-down vertical endeavor.

More importantly, they have agreed to change Acuff's training.

Myers' opinion was that, at this point in her career, Acuff needs to spend less time in the weight room working on her entire body, more time working on exercises that will specifically help her jumping.

These nuances of training are more important in high jumping than almost any other discipline because the mechanics of a high jump take such a toll on the body that it leaves high jumpers with huge amounts of conditioning work and very little real action.

"I only jump 15 times in practice and that's only once or twice a week, tops," Acuff said.

It is a brutal sport. Hips fall out of alignment. Knees twist. Acuff has had particular problems with her ankles over the years.

Earlier in her career, while struggling with ankle injuries, she realized that the anti-inflammatories she took like candy weren't helping her. So, she turned to so-called "alternative" medicines and started feeling better. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal remedies have become her specialty. Acuff has been running a successful acupuncture business for the past four years. She has also, quite famously, done some modeling on the side.

But running a business, doing picture shoots, perfecting the high jump and starting the family -- it's all a bit too much. Soon, she would like to retire from competition.

Before that, though, there is this comeback to worry about.

The coach downplays his role. He says he doesn't have much time to spend, that a conversation or two with Acuff -- or a quick breakdown of the videos of her workouts she occasionally sends him -- is all the coaching she needs.

"We've really just talked about going out there and having fun and enjoying the people you're around in the track and field world," Myers said. "When you're retired, those people aren't going to be there anymore."

Myers knows that feeling. Soon, Acuff will, too.

And when it's over, it will really be over -- no Masters tours for her because, to be blunt, "high jumping isn't something you do for fun."

Quite simply, it hurts too much.

"It's a lonely path for most of us," she said. "If you're not executing, if you don't have everything lined up, timed up, it's not a fun ride. It's only fun when you're hitting it perfectly."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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