On May 25, 1963, at a track meet in Modesto, California, University of Washington teammates Phil Shinnick and Brian Sternberg set new world records. Shinnick, a Spokane native, leaps 27 feet, 4 inches in the long jump, besting the previous standard by three-quarters of an inch, and Sternberg, from Seattle, soars 16 feet, 7 inches in the pole vault, his second world-record vault in four weeks. But less than six weeks later, Sternberg will suffer paralysis in a trampoline accident and be rendered a quadriplegic for life. Shinnick will endure his own setback when his world record is nullified because Modesto meet organizers had failed to take a wind reading. Shinnick will fight for decades to restore his mark, and in 2021 — 58 years after the fact — the Court of Arbitration for Sport will certify his world record.
Washington Natives, Fellow Huskies
Phil Shinnick (b. 1943) and Brian Sternberg (1943-2013) were from opposite sides of the state and appeared to share little in common other than their athletic brilliance. Yet over decades marked by tragedy and misfortune, they would become close friends, forever linked by that fateful day in Modesto.
Shinnick was a free spirit, born and raised in Spokane. He attended Gonzaga Prep High School, starred in the long jump, the high jump, and the hurdles, and was a standout on the basketball team, though he couldn’t seem to steer clear of injury or illness. Most of his senior year was wiped due to mononucleosis, he had to have a cancerous growth cut away from his neck, and he went through the windshield in a car wreck on his way home from his senior prom. At the UW and later at the University of California, he became a dissident straight out of central casting, a blunt and opinionated firebrand who spent two months in prison in the 1970s for not cooperating with a grand jury investigating the Patty Hearst case. “Shinnick has never shied from social or political protest, no matter how unpopular,” wrote Dan Raley in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “He has been anti-war, anti-racism, anti-nuclear, pro-Soviet, pro-Chinese, pro-Contra, labeled a subversive, called a Communist, put on the FBI watch list, imprisoned for an alleged connection to Patty Hearst’s kidnapping by radicals and been a crusader for a smoke-free environment decades before anyone else thought of it” (“Cruel Worlds”). Eventually Shinnick became an acupuncturist in New York City.
Sternberg was far more buttoned-down than Shinnick. Born in Seattle and raised in the suburbs, first in Normandy Park, and then in Shoreline, he attended Shoreline High School, became a star gymnast and pole vaulter, was active in his church, and aspired to be a high school science teacher. He was scholarly, reserved, and exceptionally modest. Later in life, he and his father Harold Sternberg co-founded the Seattle chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Sternberg often spoke to youth groups about his triumphs, tragedy, and faith.
Shinnick and Sternberg arrived at the University of Washington (UW) in the fall of 1961 and immediately began training with the track team. In November, at the conclusion of fall drills, they starred in the annual Purple and Gold Track Meet at Edmundson Pavilion. Shinnick tied with his older brother Nelson Shinnick in the high jump and set a meet record with a long jump of 23 feet. Sternberg tied his friend and mentor John Cramer in the pole vault, both clearing 13 feet, 8 inches. Two months later Sternberg transitioned from a metal pole to fiberglass, and on April 7, 1962, he vaulted 14 feet, 9 inches in the UW freshman team’s first outdoor meet of the season. Over the ensuing 10 months, having mastered the use of the fiberglass pole, Sternberg developed into the world’s leading pole vaulter, and on April 27, 1963, at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, he set the first of his three world records with a vault of 16 feet, 5 inches.
Shinnick’s progress in the long jump was more gradual. He hovered just above 23 feet for most of his freshman year before eclipsing 24 feet during the fall of his sophomore year. But in the spring of 1963 he suddenly emerged as a world-class long jumper. In mid-May he leapt 24 feet, 7 inches to prevail at a meet in Eugene, Oregon. A week later he stunned onlookers with a jump of 25 feet, 5 inches at the Far West championship in Pullman — three inches better than his previous best in practice. “Few collegians — and almost no sophomores — jump 25 feet,” observed Georg N. Meyers in The Seattle Times. “In two weeks, Phil bettered the distance a half dozen times … [his] rapid improvement has fostered dreams of jumping for the United States in the Olympic Games in Tokyo next year. It is an ambitious thought” (“Sandbox Therapy”).
A Glorious Day in Modesto
May 25, 1963 began unceremoniously for Sternberg and Shinnick. They started the day in Berkeley, California, competing in the Big Six Conference championships. Sternberg cleared 15 feet, 9 inches to tie for first in the pole vault, while Shinnick fell backward in one jump, scratched in the other three, and was eliminated from the long jump. The pair then hurried 90 miles to Modesto — getting a speeding ticket on the way — for the California Relays, “eager sophomores badly in need of inspiration, dissatisfied with performances at the conference championships earlier that day. There was light banter and a friendly wager. They shook hands on it” (“Cruel Worlds”) — and then the implausible happened:
“Shinnick took off down the runway. Moments before, Sternberg had tossed grass into the air, checking for wind, and given his friend the OK to proceed. Shinnick came up with the jump of his life — 27 feet, 4 inches — beating Russian Igor Ter-Ovanesyan’s world record by three-quarters of an inch and shattering his personal best by nearly two feet. Sternberg was one of the first to greet the Spokane native as he climbed out of the sand. Less than 60 minutes later and just 30 feet away, with the sky illuminated by a full moon, Sternberg used his then-new-age fiberglass pole to hurtle himself into uncharted vaulting territory — 16 feet, 7 inches. His effort was three-quarters of an inch better than the world record held by John Pennel, who had recently wrested the top mark away from Sternberg. Shinnick was among the … envoy offering excited congratulations. Shinnick’s glee wouldn’t last the night; Sternberg’s the summer” (“Cruel Worlds”).
About 30 minutes after Shinnick’s leap, meet officials told him they had made a mistake and left the wind gauge unattended. “The referee, Charlie Hunter, said the performance would have to be recorded as ‘wind-aided.’ Variable winds during the evening had ranged to 7 miles an hour, well above the allowable 4.473 miles an hour” (“Sternberg’s 16-7 Record, Shinnick’s Long Jump Nullified”). Shinnick was devastated and witnesses were dumbfounded; many said the wind was exceptionally calm when Shinnick jumped, and over time, meet officials would apologize to Shinnick for their incompetence.
In Seattle, Meyers, the Times columnist, blasted Modesto organizers. “Shamefully, Shinnick was robbed of a world record,” Meyers wrote, describing the judges’ decision as a “swindle” and meet organizers as “dunderheads” (“Phil’s Foul Fortune”). The Times reported that Leon Glover, the official assigned to the anemometer, had been instructed to watch the gauge only during jumps by Ralph Boston, the reigning Olympic champion and world-record holder. “I can’t justify my position,” Glover would say. “But ever since I’ve been trying to help in this work, I’ve been bothered by the fact that none of the meet officials seem to know what is going on … If I had known about Shinnick, I would have taken a reading. It’s that simple. But I’d never so much as heard of him” (“The Sporting Thing”).
On June 7, 1963, Sternberg topped his own world record with a vault of 16 feet, 8 inches at the Compton Relays in Southern California, but his reign at the top would be short-lived. On July 2, while working out on a trampoline in preparation for a track meet in Russia, he lost his momentum in midair and crashed into the trampoline head-first, dislocating cervical vertebrae and bruising his spinal cord. Paralyzed from the neck down, he spent the next nine months at University Hospital, clinging to hope that he might walk again. He finally went home in the spring of 1964 and lived the final 49 years of his life a quadriplegic, cared for by his parents and a steady stream of nurses and orderlies.
Shinnick continued to thrive athletically, though Sternberg’s injury briefly overwhelmed him. “When he hurt himself, I lost my bearings,” Shinnick recalled. “It was devastating to me. It was not right. I didn’t have my vision. My buddy was gone. We were superb athletes. He was the only one who could push me to do great things. If Brian and I had stayed together, we would have destroyed the world records” (“Cruel Worlds”). Try as he might, Shinnick never again broke the 27-foot barrier, though he came close on occasion. In the summer of 1964 he qualified for the U.S. Olympic team with a jump of 26 feet, 1-1/2 inches, but he wasn’t at his best in Tokyo and failed to reach the long-jump finals.
The farther removed from his magical night in Modesto, the more bitter Shinnick became about his nullified world record. More than 40 years on, he still felt empty and cheated. “My deepest meditation told me that I had to do something about the record, it got too deep inside me,” he told The New York Times in 2004. “I had no antidote for the suffering it brought me. I really care about the record. I always will” (“One Man’s Battle …”).
In 2003, Sternberg joined in efforts to validate Shinnick’s record. “We need to put this injustice of Phil’s to rest,” Sternberg wrote in an affidavit to the various governing bodies of track and field. “Justice is never timebound. Everyone who saw it, including all the officials on the runway, testify to the same thing — that it was legal. He did his job, and now it is time for others to do their job and accept it” (“One Man’s Battle …”). Later that year USA Track and Field relented and recognized Shinnick’s jump as an American record at the time it was achieved. Shinnick then pushed on, taking his case to the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF). Finally in 2000, the IAAF sent Shinnick’s case to an ultimate arbiter, the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, and in 2001 — 58 years after the fact — the court certified Shinnick’s world record. For more than 15 months, the record books now show, no human being had ever jumped farther than Phil Shinnick.
Scott Hanson, “Best Friends — and Husky Sophomores — Brian Sternberg and Phil Shinnick Made Track History on Same Night in 1963,” The Seattle Times, August 6, 2021 (www.seattletimes.com); Jay Weiner, “One Man’s Battle to Change 1963s Record Books,” The New York Times, January 18, 2004 (www.nytimes.com); Georg N. Meyers, “Sandbox Therapy,” The Seattle Times, May 23, 1963, p. 26; “Shinnick Misses in Big 6 Qualifying,” Ibid., May 25, 1963, p. 4; “Sternberg’s 16-7 Record; Shinnick’s Long Jump Nullified,” Ibid., May 26, 1963, p. 33; Georg N. Meyers, “Phil’s Foul Fortune,” Ibid., May 27, 1963, p. 33; “World Mark Sought for Shinnick,” Ibid., May 27, 1963, p. 33; George N. Meyers, “The Sporting Thing,” Ibid., May 28, 1963, p. 14; Georg N. Meyers, “Davises’ Bad Night,” Ibid., May 30, 1963, p. 31; Georg N. Meyers, “Phil ‘Runs Scared’,” Ibid., June 7, 1963, p. 14; Georg N. Meyers, “Flyin’ Phil Ready?,” Ibid., June 18, 1964, p. 31; Georg N. Meyers, “Last Call for Tokyo,” Ibid., July 6, 1994; p. 12; David Eskenazi, “Wayback Machine: Dr. Phil’s Quest for Justice,” June 25, 2013, sportspressnew website accessed May 14, 2022 (https://www.sportspressnw.com/2154213/2013/wayback-machine-dr-phils-qwest-for-justice); David Eskenazi, “Wayback Machine: A Memorable Day, May 25, 1963,” June 11, 2013, sportspressnw website accessed May 14, 2022 (https://www.sportspressnw.com/2152943/2013/wayback-machine-a-memorable-day-may-25-1963); Dan Raley, “Cruel Words: Forty Years Ago, Promising UW Track Standouts Fell From Grace,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 22, 2003 (www.seattlepi.com).
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