Amy Acuff's Secrets To Longevity

Amy Acuff has won 11 national titles in high jump -- and has only missed three world championships in the last 20 years. Kirby Lee/Getty Images

Long before hurdler Lolo Jones became a paparazzi magnet, high jumper Amy Acuff was the "it" girl of track and field. Cameras whirred in 1999 when the 6-foot-2 UCLA graduate jumped in a strapless top covered with gray fur at Madison Square Garden and, a flesh-colored bikini in the Oregon sun.

In a career that's spanned more than two decades, Acuff has won 11 national championships -- and has also been on the cover of Playboy, earned an acupuncture license, given birth to two kids and launched a company that makes sports performance apps.

Next year, Acuff could also become first U.S. track athlete to compete in six Olympics.

She won't be competing at the IAAF World Championships this week in Beijing, but she did place third at the U.S. nationals in June, two weeks before her 40th birthday. Had she jumped six centimeters higher to meet the required 1.94-meter mark before the August 9 deadline, she would be in China. (None of the top three finishers at nationals achieved the standard, so no female high jumpers were on the U.S. roster until American-record holder Chaunté Lowe was selected at the last minute by invitation of the IAAF, the sport's international governing body.)

This year's absence means Acuff has missed only three world championships since 1995: In 2011, she skipped worlds to take care of her 1-year-old daughter, Elsa, and in 2013, she had just given birth to her son, Ryker.

Acuff's longevity in track is remarkable, particularly in high jump. The Olympic veteran recently divulged some of the secrets behind her lengthy career, by phone from Austin, Texas, where she lives and coaches herself on the track.

Enjoy the process.

Acuff's best Olympic result was fourth place, at the 2004 Athens Games. But these days, her day-to-day motivation is not on the scoreboard.

"At this point," she says, "that's probably last on my list, beating people." Instead, she finds motivation to train in "just the nerdy enjoyment I get out of a workout. It's super-relaxing, even if it's somewhat painful or intense or uncomfortable or hot."

"Also, I still really enjoy the puzzle of figuring out how to jump higher and how to refine it. It's the process of whittling away at something over a very, very long time. It's working a piece of coal over and over again to get that diamond. There's something satisfying in seeing that diamond, even if no one else saw it. Even if it didn't come out at the Olympics. Even if you just see it in little moments of brilliance, it's satisfying."

Realize that both highs and lows are fleeting.

"In track and field, you get this great high-high when things go well, and you can get a low-low from things going poorly. Either way, it's really temporary. You could have the most devastating performance, but you're not going to be sad for a whole year. When you do something fantastic, you'll be elated for a couple of days, then it's, Okay what next?"

"I noticed in this sport, that a lot of athletes who had the ultimate success of winning a gold medal at the Olympics had a lot of problems afterwards, adjusting to the idea that it wasn't really going to be a lasting satisfaction. A lot of them, whether they retired or came back and competed, were kind of miserable afterwards."

Be open to change.

"Jumping stays fresh for me because I'm constantly open to refinement and improvement," she says. "But sometimes you can really get entrenched in, Oh, I just have to be stronger, faster."

For several years, Acuff -- who was considered to be a power jumper and had a slow run-up to the bar -- figured that if she ran faster she could apply more force to the ground and jump higher. But it took her away from the solid technique that had always worked for her.

"You want to be straight as a board, like a column, at takeoff when you're leaving the ground. So from 2005 to 2009, I was running a lot faster and not getting results because I would jam my takeoff leg into my hip socket, and the energy wasn't transferring up through my body."

When she went back to refining her technique, the results followed. "Sometimes the things you try are not successful and you have to go back to the drawing board and be flexible about it."

Don't get emotionally attached to results.

"When I was younger, I'd get really bent out of shape if I did poorly. I'd be devastated if it was a big meet and I didn't reach my goal," she says.

After her fourth Olympics, her perspective changed.

"In 2008, I did poorly in the Olympics and basically that whole year. I didn't have a good reason, and it didn't make sense. After the Olympics, I was like, 'This is it.' I was kind of sulking for some time after that. Then I thought, I'll give it one more year. I came back, and was actually pretty good. Knowing it was the last go-round maybe made me a little sharper in my awareness."

Later, after having kids, she said, "It's not that you don't care. You want to do well. But somehow, when it doesn't go how you expect, you can just step outside of yourself and observe a little more rather than being wrapped up in emotion about it."

"Part of it was getting older -- and maybe fatigue at being disappointed, too."

Focus on technique, especially as you get older.

"The majority of people have to stop high jumping in their mid-20s because of injury," she says, "mainly the lower leg, foot, ankle -- sometimes a knee or hip. It's a really abusive movement if you're not super-efficient. You run, then try to convert all your forward momentum into vertical momentum. If you hit it wrong, it's like a little car accident."

The right technique is crucial. "You have to set up your takeoff position with your ankle just right so you don't get repetitive injuries from collapsing or rolling the foot."

Turn mistakes into lessons.

"The margins for error are so small. If you're a little late, or your position is a little off, it's the difference between a really big jump and a horrible jump. That frustrates people."

To avoid that? "I see each problem or obstacle as something I can potentially learn from," she says.

Visualize the success you want to have.

Acuff set her lifetime best in 2003, when she jumped 2.01 meters in Zurich, Switzerland. In Rio, at 41, she believes she could break that mark.

"Maybe I'm nuts," she says, "but I feel like it's just a function of getting into meets and getting polished. Maybe that's complete fantasy. But it would be amazing to do better than I ever have before.

"More than that, I just want to feel the thrill of running down there, applying as much force as I can, hitting all my positions, and just connecting with the earth and being flung so high in the air. Time slows down as you go over the bar. It's a tremendous feeling of power and control -- but also [of being] out of control because you're at the max of what you can handle. When you're jumping your best like that, there's nothing like it. It's so cool."

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