Debbie Brill raised the bar
The revolutionary high jumper's legacy — and Canadian record — have stood the test of time
When we were students in the early 1970s and still throwing ourselves into sand pits at high school track meets, one of the more famous Canadian amateur athletes was a high jumper from B.C. named Debbie Brill.
For many of us who were into sports in those days, she was cool.
Striking, with long, dark hair and, at times, a brooding way about her, Brill was different than the rest. She marched to her own drummer, and had what some might even call a rebellious nature. She wore bell-bottomed jeans and looked like a flower child away from the field of play.
On it, she was setting the world on fire because, as a 16-year-old, she had become the first North American woman to clear the then unimaginable height of six feet (1.83 metres).
"There's a lot to be said for not being told how to do things," Brill chuckles over the phone from her home in Comox, B.C., on Vancouver Island.
"Back then sport was not as mainstream as it is today and we had to make it up as we went along. I was left to my own devices and part of my talent was that I was able to be completely in the moment of the jump."
Brill had developed a unique and innovative reverse jumping style that many referred to as the "Fosbury Flop" — named after Dick Fosbury of the United States, who won Olympic gold in Mexico City in 1968.
The truth is, and history shows, that Brill was experimenting and succeeding with a similar approach at the same time, independent of Fosbury's influence.
Bend it like Brill
As we watched her career unfold — and once we got foam landing pits — our gym teachers relished the opportunity to try and convert our jumping styles from the "Western Roll" or "Scissors Kick" to what they delightedly called the "Brill Bend."
The notion that a Canadian was revolutionizing something as basic in sport as the high jump became a source of pride — indeed, wonder.
"It was a willingness to do something different," Brill says. "It feels good to have my name attached to that. I did that not because it would bring me fame or fortune but because it was a personal journey."
Adding to the mystique is the fact that Brill has held the Canadian women's high jump record since 1969, when she was a 16-year-old. Her outdoor pinnacle of 1.98 metres, set in 1984, still stands as the national record, as does her indoor standard of 1.99 from 1982 in Edmonton.
That world record performance was delivered by Brill just a few months after giving birth to her first child and made her a household name in Canada while cementing her international reputation as one of the best high jumpers on the planet - bar none.
"That Canadian record is one of the few regrets I have as an athlete," admits eight-time Canadian champion and 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Nicole Forrester, who came closest to Brill's now 33-year-old record by clearing 1.97 metres in Greece in 2007.
"I chased the life out of that standard and the bar won. What Debbie Brill accomplished is incredible. You really can't compare the heights athletes jump now with what she did. She is a pioneer of the modern style of jumping. More than four decades have passed and still the high jump form has remained relatively the same."
The current Canadian titlist, Alyxandria Treasure of Prince George, B.C., will be reaching for Brill's record yet again at the national championships in Ottawa this weekend.
Treasure jumped a personal-best 1.94 metres at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where the gold medallist, Ruth Beitia of Spain, won with a clearance of 1.97 — lower than Brill's mark from decades before.
"I met her once at the Harry Jerome meet in Vancouver and she's done so much for the sport," Treasure says from Ottawa.
"That record of Debbie Brill's is high. It's daunting. I know that I'm capable of it. Getting it has always been a career goal. That's all us athletes ever want. It's more than just winning medals, it's about putting your name into the history books."
The oddity in all of this is that Debbie Brill, while undoubtedly a history maker and innovator in one of the foundation disciplines of track and field, is not a member of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame.
Rebel with a cause
Brill's career was, to say the least, eclectic.
Even though she captured Commonwealth and Pan American Games gold medals and 11 Canadian titles while delivering a series of record-setting performances, she never broke through in the three Olympics she competed at.
Finishing eighth in her first Olympics in Munich in 1972, she was vocally opposed to the IOC's determination to continue in the wake of the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. Disillusioned with the Games, Brill left track and field for a period of three years and hitchhiked across North America while living a free-spirited lifestyle.
Her many detractors also questioned her commitment and intensity when she "no-heighted" by missing three times at the opening standard of 1.75 metres at the 1976 Games in Montreal — a competition in which she was one of the favourites to win. What most drew their ire was her seemingly laissez-faire reaction to the result.
"I was devastated at the moment. I cried. I had just no-heighted at the Olympics. You can't do any worse than that," Brill recalled during an interview with the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, of which she is a member.
"For most athletes there's a fear of losing and a fear of doing really poorly. But afterwards I smiled as I thought to myself that I really hadn't changed at all. Nothing bad had happened. I still knew how to high jump and the world had not come to an end."
Ranked No. 1 in the world in 1979, Brill never got the chance to compete at the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of the boycott stemming from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Unfazed by this and still cynical about the IOC, she was disappointed but moved on with her life.
Brill finished fifth at her last Games, in Los Angeles in 1984, but she continued competing into her fifties and still holds a couple of Master's records.
"I was in it for the art of it… the self-expression and reaching for something inside of me," she says. "It wasn't very fulfilling for me to have won some gold medals. On the other hand, it was very fulfilling to capture an absolutely elusive and perfect moment in time, and that was worth it."
While Brill's dominance of the Canadian women's high jump record has endured for nearly half a century as a seemingly strange quirk of modern-day athletics, some believe that her contribution to the sporting landscape is far more significant.
"Perhaps 'faster, higher, stronger,' isn't something that can be fairly compared across time," figures Nicole Forrester. "A jump of 1.98 metres in 1984 is not necessarily the same as a jump of 1.98 in 2017 when taking into account the advancement and influence of sport science. While records are meant to be broken, taking a moment to reflect and laud these great performances achieved much earlier in time also serves as a reminder of what the pursuit of excellence means."
As they leap and bend their way into the fray at the world championship trials in Ottawa this weekend, all of the high jumpers, men and women alike, will do so partly because Debbie Brill raised the bar generations ago.
And she conceived of the way they would jump years before any of them were even born.