athlete running with blurred background

Athletes Who Break Barriers

One of the things that draws us again and again to sports is its dynamism. Those men at Elysian Fields in 1846 never dreamed their game would become the pastime it is today. Jesse Owens couldn’t have imagined Scott Jurek anymore than Mark Spits could have predicted Michael Phelps’s achievements just 30 some odd years later. We routinely celebrate how the greatest athletes shape and change the sports we love. However, they are not the only forces at work in the world of athletic performance. Here are four people who’ve broken barriers and changed how we play and understand sports in ways we may not expect:

Dick Fosbury – When Fosbury began his career as a high jumper in the early 1950s, most athletes were still jumping the bar upright, following their lead leg and hoisting the other leg behind them. Fosbury, at 16, was convinced there was a better way. His new technique lowered the jumpers center of gravity—the runner approached the bar with a J shaped run, jumped with his back to the bar, and thrust the legs upward as the lower torso was clearing the bar. When his new approach earned Fosbury a gold in the 1968 Olympics, the Flop quickly became the standard in high jumping and remains so today. This TED-Ed Lesson teaches you all you need to know about Fosbury’s method.

Chris McDougall – In his 2009 account of his search for and experiences with the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico, Born to Run, McDougall almost singlehandedly called the athletic shoe industry to task. He argued these runner, with little more than leather flaps on their feet and with no carb gels or stretching regimens, were among the world’s greatest distance runners. He went further, claiming that the padding and cushion of modern shoes cause greater harm than good. One stroll through your athletic shoe store demonstrates his lasting impact—every brand touts how natural or “barely there” its new shoe is. The craze continues.

Roger Bannister – On May 6, 1954, Bannister did something no one else on record had accomplished—he ran a mile in under four minutes. First, Bannister was not a career or professional runner. He was a medical student who ran for sport. He is a testament to what the body was capable of and the power of focused, intentional training. Bannister seemed something of a natural, posting noteworthy finish times with barely any training at all. As he took his running seriously and trained harder, his times fell and his goal was achieved.

Malcolm Gladwell – An award winning writer for The New Yorker and a celebrated author to boot, Gladwell’s book, Outliers, popularized the 10,000-hour rule. Simply, the rule states that to become a master of some task or discipline, 10,000 hours of intentional training are required. Training that is intentional is training that challenges you at your current level. While a later meta-analysis showed the rule wasn’t as broadly applicable as many had assumed, this new study did confirm the dramatic impact of impact of intentional training on athletics and disciplines where specific techniques and movements can be honed and perfected.

What non-athlete has changed your sport? How has a writer or scientist changed your sport? What change was championed by a single athlete that seems to be a standard today? Tell us the barrier-breakers who’ve changed your sport by joining the conversation below.



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