As Mamo Wolde prepared to make the turn into the stadium for the final 400 meters of the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics marathon, he anticipated the roar of 80,000 people cheering him on to a gold medal.
He was a full 3 minutes ahead of the next closest runner and about to become the first runner in the history of the Olympics to win the marathon in back-to-back years.
He was greeted with silence.
The crowd was too focused on a tall, gangly American high jumper gunning for his own gold medal.
Scrawny nerd Dick Fosbury struggled at high school sports. He couldn’t make the football team. Or the basketball team. And he didn’t make the cut for the high jump team his first year — the sport he had spent so much time training for.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. He did everything his coach told him to do. And his coach was one of the best in the world.
A great high jump was the result of great technique.
That started with a few rapidly sprinted steps. Nearing the bar, Dick would push off from the balls of his feet and throw his body sideways over the bar, using his hips to keep from knocking the bar off the pins.
No matter how hard he practiced, Dick continued to be frustrated. The best he could muster was 5’ 4”, a full 2 feet lower than the world record — in a sport measured by fractions of inches.
And that wasn’t something he was willing to tolerate.
He improved his sideways lunge. He worked on scissoring his legs in the middle of the jump to build more height. He tumbled and trained. Practiced and prepared.
But none of it was enough to make him a winner.
He was stuck. And feeling frustrated. And then one day, a crazy idea hit him.
What if instead of lunging over the bar sideways, which always felt awkward to him, he could push himself up and over the bar backward?
It was scary to think about the possibility of landing on his head. This new strategy would leave him trying to land on his shoulders with the entire weight of his body driving down on his neck.
One wrong jump and he could be paralyzed for life.
As he refined his new high jump technique, he quickly improved. At his next competition, he blew away his old personal best by a full 6 inches.
But if he thought that getting better was something that would win him praise, he was in for a rude awakening.
The local newspaper noticed his odd style, naming it as the “Fosbury Flop”.
And they weren’t the only ones who noticed.
His own college coach called his new head-first, backward lunge “a shortcut to mediocrity”.
It got worse from there.
The Los Angeles Times said he “goes over the bar like [an idiot] being pushed out of a 30-storey window.”
Sports Illustrated said he has “a gait that may call to mind a two-legged camel” and looks like “a slightly apprehensive man lying back on a chaise lounge that’s too short for him” when he jumps.
Other papers called him “a fish flopping in a boat”.
The “World’s Laziest High Jumper.” “A guy falling off the back of a truck.”
He looked like a fool trying something new like this.
His big success was ridiculed by everyone. For years.
His style looked ridiculous. And the critics piled on. Never letting him forget how stupid he looked every time he lunged backward over that high jump bar.
And in 1968, in the thin air of Mexico City, that success was in jeopardy.
Dick had barely even qualified for the Olympics, squeaking out a third place finish by brushing over 7’ 3”.
He was in over his head. Literally.
There he stood, staring down 7’ 4¼”, a height he had never cleared. It was a height no one else had ever cleared.
He was staring down an Olympic record.
And so was his competition. It was just Dick and fellow American Ed Caruthers left. The new against the old.
Dick, as he always did, stood at his starting mark, rocking back and forth, clenching and unclenching his fists, letting his adrenaline and the energy from the crowd flow through his veins. He wouldn’t start until he believed he could clear it. So he rocked. And waited. And then he started running. First straight, and then slowly turning to his right as he jumped over the bar, head first. Backwards.
And he knocked the bar off.
But so did Caruthers. Strike one. And so they both did it again. And again, they both failed to clear a height nobody else had yet to ever clear. Strike two.
They each only had one chance left.
This was it. Dick had one final opportunity to prove that his head-first, backward style wasn’t as ridiculous as everyone told him. For years he had battled and competed and improved. This was it.
So again, he lined up at the starting mark, rocking back and forth, clenching and unclenching his fists, psyching himself up to believe he could do this, despite what his coaches, the press, and everyone around him said.
And again, he took off. Bounding closer and closer, slowly arching in towards the pole.
And then he leaped. Backward. Head first. Hips up. Shoes up.
And the bar stayed up.
He had done it. He had jumped higher than anyone in human history ever had. Dick Fosbury won the gold medal, claimed a new world record, and forever changed the sport of high jump.
Today, every single high jumper in the world uses Dick Fosbury’s “awkward” backward lunge over the bar. His “flop” wasn’t so much of a flop after all.
He refused to listen to some of the brightest minds in the sport. They told him that his new style was foolish and irresponsible. Dangerous. Perhaps even deadly.
Where they saw danger and fear, he saw opportunity for growth.
It’s the same with you.
There are those that tell you that your crazy idea “will never work” and that it’s okay just to be “normal”. There are those who tell you to “keep your feet on the ground” and “be reasonable.”
They scoff and sigh at your ridiculous ideas and call you a flop.
Nobody knows any more or any less than you do. Decide what you want. Then work fanatically until you get it. Keep iterating on your idea until it works.
It might not be today. It might not be tomorrow. It might be years from now.
You might have to jump backward to make forward progress.
Never forget, you have to ignore the critics and experts that tell you what you’re doing will lead to failure and injury. Believe in yourself. Don’t settle for conventional wisdom when what you really want is so much grander.
Use what you believe to achieve greatness.
You might not reinvent a sport, but you’re guaranteed to achieve your own brand of greatness.