Blaine Newnham / Times associate editor
Jumper aims to set his record straight
Forty years ago, on a warm, windless night in Modesto, Calif., two University of Washington sophomores, callow 19- and 20-year-olds, astonishingly exceeded world records in their events.
Brian Sternberg reclaimed his record in the pole vault with an arching effort of 16 feet, 7 inches, while his friend — tall, slender, Phil Shinnick — stunned the crowd at the California Relays and track aficionados worldwide with a leap of 27 feet, 4 inches in the long jump, breaking the mark of 27-3¼ by Igor Ter-Ovanesyan of the Soviet Union.
"It was the greatest day of my life," said Shinnick this week, "and the worst."
It was Sternberg, friend and teammate, who dropped a blade of grass to show the absence of wind and the start of Shinnick's charge down the runway and leap into history and heartbreak.
Two months later, Sternberg would break his back in a training accident and remains paralyzed to this day. Forty years later, Shinnick would still be without the record and recognition for what he had done, all because of a simple oversight.
Officials alongside the long-jump runway failed to turn on the wind gauge during Shinnick's jump, leaving his career with an asterisk for life.
It wouldn't matter that meet officials, even journalists, would swear repeatedly and consistently that there was no wind during the jump. It wouldn't matter that such testimony can — and should have — right a wrong.
"First of all," wrote Arthur Robinson of the Sacramento Bee, "it wasn't a wind. It wasn't even a breeze. Nor was it a zephyr. Even a hummingbird's feather would have dropped to the ground without drifting in its descent at the moment young Shinnick made his phenomenal jump."
Next week, at a meeting of the records committee of USA Track and Field in Greensboro, N.C., Shinnick will make one more attempt at claiming what was his by seeking "retrospective ratification" of his world record.
"We aren't doing anything that couldn't have been done 40 years ago," said Grant Birkinshaw, a New Zealander who six months ago embarked on a faraway crusade to get Shinnick his due.
If accepted, the record would simply slip Shinnick's name between Ter-Ovanesyan and Ralph Boston, who jumped 27-4½ in 1964.
Birkinshaw and Shinnick will meet face-to-face for the first time today, a strange search for truth and justice that has taken Birkinshaw from his home in Wellington, New Zealand, to Seattle this past week, and on to New York, where Shinnick is a Park Avenue acupuncturist and director of the Research Institute of Global Physiology, Behavior and Treatment.
"We've got a robust case to get Phil his record," said Birkinshaw, who enrolled at Washington in 1970 to long jump in the footsteps of Shinnick. "I hope they have a robust rebuttal."
Sitting in front of his computer six months ago, Birkinshaw, who still holds the fourth-longest long jump in Washington's history, wondered what had happened to Shinnick.
The search had begun. Within hours, Birkinshaw had a phone number in New York for Shinnick.
"I called, got his answering machine, and was leaving a message when he picked up the phone," said Birkinshaw. "It didn't take me long to figure out how much the record still meant to him."
Birkinshaw pawed through press clippings, looked at scratchy 16mm film of the event, sought and got affidavits from those who remember the night so well, including Sternberg and Boston, the first human to jump 27 feet and the man who was second to Shinnick that night in Modesto.
Boston will drive from his home in Georgia next week to be with Shinnick and Birkinshaw as they make the case for the record one more time.
"I saw the jump," said Boston, "and it was real."
The wind gauge wasn't on because no one considered Shinnick a threat to break the world record. Later, he made the 1964 Olympic team and became an alternate on the 1968 team to prove he was for real.
From Spokane, he was a marvelous athlete, a 9.5 sprinter at 100 yards, a 7-foot high jumper, a national-class hurdler who scored more than 7,000 points the first time he tried the decathlon.
"There is no reason in the world why the record shouldn't be recognized," said one meet official, Dr. Hilmer Lodge, at the time. "I was right there and can testify there was hardly any wind."
There is precedent for the reinstatement of a record. Nineteen years after Daniel Joubert of South Africa equaled the world mark in the 100-yard dash in 1931, he sought and received recognition for his achievement.
Shinnick admits he is angry and bitter about the way history views his accomplishment.
"It changed my life fundamentally," he said.
At the time, there was speculation that the Soviet Union squashed his attempt to get the mark recognized because it belonged to Ter-Ovanesyan.
Later, Shinnick felt persecuted by Americans for his various and radical ideals, an attempt to get China into the Olympics, a zealousness for world peace and human rights that took him to Central America, even a charge by government officials that he had, in the 1970s, made a visit to the farmhouse where Patty Hearst was hiding.
Clearly, he had run afoul of the norm, both in and out of track and field, where his battles with AAU chief Ollan Cassell were well known.
He became a professor at Rutgers University, but didn't seem to gain any peace in his life until he started his medical practice in New York.
"I was unhappy all the time, and now I've learned to be happy," he said. "All of this has taught me to believe in my own senses. I've been able to focus on reality and truth."
Shinnick said he has been led to believe that if the Americans accept his appeal for the record, that the international body governing track and field will follow suit.
"I'm going to be nice this week, I'm not going to act like a lunatic," said Shinnick. "The reality is I broke the world record. The rest is popular fiction."
And in need of revision.
Blaine Newnham: 206-464-2364 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company