The high-jump bar in the claustrophobic training room at Harford Community College was resting at 8 feet 1 inch. That, said Jerome Carter, was "just to get the feel of it."
On this afternoon, Carter was aiming no higher than 7-9. He did not clear it--a clearance at any height under such tight circumstances is virtually impossible--but he was close.
That was remarkable in itself, because Gerd Wessig's outdoor world record is 7-8 3/4 and Vladimir Yashchenko's indoor best is 7-8 1/2. But far more incredible is the fact that until a month ago Carter never had achieved a 7-foot jump in competition.
When Carter, 6-1 and 160 pounds, passed that barrier in a meet at Towson State, he did not pause for celebration, but went on to clear 7-4 without a miss. Then, a week ago at George Mason, he became only the fifth American to jump 7-7 indoors.
It was not a lucky, bar-bouncing effort. Observers said he went over with at least two inches to spare. Later, he came close at 7-8 3/4 and missed, he said, only because "everybody around me was freaking out."
To say that Carter, 19, is confident of greater things would be an understatement. He has no doubt whatever that he will be the first man to clear 8 feet.
"This year, I'll do 8 feet," he said. "Every day, I know it even more. I'm trying to look past the world record. I know that sounds like much, but we know we can go a lot higher."
The other half of the "we" is Alan Dean, the Harford track coach, who is just as certain of Carter's destiny.
"It's noteworthy that he's done so much already just on his own, with no competition," Dean said. "He was practicing here at 7-8 two days before he jumped 7-7 and he would have gone higher except that he got so excited he was forgetting how to jump. You saw him today at 7-9, with only half his tools, with no room for his approach.
"When you see him really jump, with the tremendous leg speed he developed as a high-school sprinter, and along with knowing Jerome and his power of positive thinking, you'll agree that he can't miss. He has fantastic talent, he's very intelligent and very coachable. He picks things up quickly and he has tremendous desire."
Three days after the 7-7 jump, Dean found himself handling simultaneous calls from Sports Illustrated and Eastern Track. Nike promised new equipment. Carter was lined up with an indoor schedule that included Friday's Millrose Games and meets in Dallas, the Meadowlands and Cleveland as well as the TAC/USA Championships Feb. 25. An invitation from Los Angeles the night before Dallas was rejected.
The Millrose meet will be Carter's first against good competition, with a field that includes Dwight Stones, Milt Ottey, Milton Goode, Jeff Woodard, Leo Williams, Tyke Peacock and, perhaps, Franklin Jacobs. He is not awed.
"This will be the first time I've seen any of those guys and they might be trying to tinker with my style before we start, but when it's over I hope they'll be asking me questions," Carter said. "I'm not worried about any psych jobs they might try. I've been through the psych thing in high school. That just helps to make it fun."
As a schoolboy, Carter competed for Dean at Harford Vocational and Technical High School, right across Thomas Run Road from his present training site at Harford Community College's Susquehanna Center. He was Class C state champion as a junior, then broke his right ankle during his senior year.
"I was too far under the bar and I wasn't even going to jump," Carter recalled. "My foot hit the edge of the track, which was a different level from the jump approach, and I twisted it badly."
The ankle, not his takeoff foot, was placed in several casts and, when he finally shed the last one, Carter jumped 6-11, a personal best, to win the East Coast Invitational. Then he accepted a scholarship to New Mexico State in the fall of 1981.
There, X-rays discovered the ankle was broken and pins were placed in it. Carter left after one semester and enrolled at Maryland-Baltimore County, where he did not compete but once jumped 7 feet in sneakers in the school's gym. It was the only time he had cleared 7 feet until the 7-4 effort at Towson.
Last summer, Carter ran a press for the Howard Publishing Co. in Ellicott City and did not return to school. But a chance conversation changed his future.
"I have two brothers who are into sports and one played football here at Harford," Carter said. "One night we were sitting around telling stories and I wondered whether maybe I could get back into jumping. I knew Mr. Dean had moved to the college and I called him to see what could be done. He started me practicing and everything's been working out just fine.
"The 7-7 jump was no surprise. I knew I'd do that. Anything I come close to in this little room I can do two inches higher. There isn't room to work over the bar, but I can judge pretty well where I'm at.
"When I was in high school, I had only done 6-4, then suddenly I started going up in big chunks. One day, I improved four inches. Well, now it's still coming in big chunks. Most high jumpers go up a quarter-inch at a time, but mine don't come like that. I've got a feeling my next improvement will be a big one."