When Amy Acuff brings her 2-year-old daughter to the track, she has to adjust her workout while Elsa plays in the sand pit.
“She doesn’t want me going too far away from her,” Acuff said.
Going higher is not a problem.
Acuff, who rose to prominence among U.S. high jumpers in the 1990s, is clearing heights like she did before retiring in 2009 and giving birth to Elsa on May 15, 2010.
Never mind that she’s 36 years old and will be 37 this summer during the London 2012 Olympic Games, potentially her fifth consecutive trip to the Games.
“If I don’t have a personal best this season, I would be pretty surprised,” said Acuff, whose PR is 6-feet-7 – five inches above her head – set in 2003. “It’s going that well.”
Acuff is a six-time U.S. outdoor champion ('95, '97, '01, '03, '05, '07) and five-time U.S. Indoor champ ('01, '04, '07, '08, '09) whose best Olympic finish was fourth place in 2004 in Athens.
“It’s amazing that after all the years of hard work and thinking about it, that you can find a way to do it better,” said Acuff, who cleared 6 feet for the first time way back in 1990 as a teenager.
Living in Austin, Texas, with her husband Tye Harvey, the 2001 World Indoor silver medalist in the pole vault, Acuff had no intention of a comeback when she started exercising for fitness last year.
But she was taken aback by her own core strength. The first day Acuff stepped into a gym, she picked up a 14-pound medicine ball and easily performed an exercise series that used to challenge her with an eight-pound ball.
“My only explanation for that was that I have a 25-pound baby that I do that with all day long,” Acuff said.
When she started doing workouts, “Within a couple of weeks, it seemed like I was pretty much as fast as I was before,” Acuff said. “(I thought) ‘Why did I train all that time if I could just do nothing for two years and come back so quickly?’”
There were some challenges, naturally, such as regaining the flexibility she had always taken for granted. Acuff also had to work on coordination and timing. But with a minimalist training program and listening to her body, she has avoided the nagging injuries that caused her pain for much of the last decade she competed.
By November, Acuff was locked into seeing it through the competitive season.
“It’s kind of like planting the garden,” she said, “You’ve got to do a lot of groundwork, and you don’t really see the results, the blooms, till many months later, but I felt comfortable at that time that things were going as planned.”
The blooms appeared on March 31 in Austin, when Acuff leaped 6-4¾, probably her highest opener ever. It also matched her season bests in 2007, ’08 and ’09.
“I just feel a little more confident this year in terms of my max potential,” Acuff said. “I’m probably not as polished, but I just really feel open to big possibilities.”
With the season still early, a quartet of U.S. high jumpers lead the world list. Only American record holder Chaunté Lowe, who has jumped 6-6 ¾ and 6-6, has gone higher than Acuff, while Brigetta Barrett and Inika McPherson have also leaped 6-4¾. The U.S. Olympic Trials for Track and Field are set for June 21-July 1 in Eugene, Ore.
“To make the team, that (height) would be more than adequate,” Acuff said. “To win a medal, it would require probably more.”
When the Port Arthur, Texas, native initially told her agent, Jeff Hartwig, that she was launching a comeback, he had no doubts. Age, he knew, was no deterrent. After all, he made the 2008 Olympic team in the pole vault at age 40.
“I thought, ‘That’s awesome,’ ” Hartwig said. “I know how competitive she is. Amy didn’t go into this with the attitude of, ‘I just want to try to eke out a third-place finish at the Trials and make my fifth Olympic team. I think she really feels like she wants to make another run at a medal.”
Acuff would be only the third U.S. track and field athlete to compete in five Games, following sprinter/long jumper Willye White (1956-72) and sprinter/hurdler Gail Devers (1988-2004).
Since she made her first Olympic team in 1996 at age 21, tying for 20th in the qualifying round, the Games have reflected the progression in Acuff’s life.
Before the 2000 Olympic Games, Acuff, who has also drawn plenty of attention as a model, appeared on the cover of “Vogue”. She finished 17th in the qualifying round in Sydney.
In 2004, despite placing third in the U.S. Olympic Trials, Acuff was the only U.S. finalist and her fourth-place finish was the highest by an American since Louise Ritter won the in 1988.
Then in Beijing, with rain making the conditions slippery, Acuff was ninth in her qualifying round and missed the final. She retired after placing 12th at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, marking her eighth straight Worlds.
“Athens was a fond memory,” Acuff said, “clearing 6-6 ¼ on a first attempt, which launched me into the medals, and then I was pushed out. It was very exciting to be in the mix at the end. That’s what I would like to achieve again.”
Luckily, she doesn’t need a lot of meets to stay sharp, since the pickings are slim at this time of year in Texas. Acuff hopes to “scrounge” some all-comer’s meets at Rice University, which is about a three-hour drive.
“Sometimes there’s no one else entered in your event,” she said, “or it’s a 12-year-old girl and a 50-year- old woman. I just have to make sure somebody enters. It’s anticlimactic if you go compete by yourself and no one enters your event and you know it’s not even going to count on the books.”
Three people must enter for the event to count. “I have a friend that runs the hurdles and we may have to enter each other’s events to fill them up,” Acuff said. “Then I’ll walk off after the gun.
“I don’t know how to hurdle.”
In her only other major meet, the Drake Relays in April, Acuff placed second behind Lowe. With the temperature failing to rise above the 50s, Lowe jumped 6-6, but Acuff only 6-0 ¾.
“We have a really good relationship,” Acuff said of Lowe, who has two daughters. “We ran into each other at the restaurant downstairs in the hotel before the meet and had a nice little meal together and talked about kids and jumping and life.”
Acuff’s daughter was only about two weeks old when Lowe broke Ritter’s 22-year-old American record, jumping 6-8 ¼.
“That was totally off my radar and no one told me about it for a month or two,” Acuff said. “She’s dealt with a lot, so I really was genuinely happy to see her achieve that and enjoy that success.”
Acuff said that her two years away from the sport helped her gain perspective.
“When you’re immersed in it and it’s your livelihood and your identity and everything rolled into one, it can be too much focus,” she said, “and it’s good to just kind of step away from it.”
Taking a break also “cleared the slate for me to build a better technique and even probably my mental approach to things,” Acuff said.
At the track, she basically coaches herself with the help of a video camera and sometimes her husband, who provides another set of eyes. Acuff works on efficiency and mechanics with a lot less volume than in the past.
“With her experience and intuition and knowledge base about how not only her body works, but what her body responds to, that’s pretty invaluable,” Hartwig said. “But she wouldn’t be in this position had she not put in the volume and the hard work previously. It’s not like she can just take it easy now and still get better.”
Acuff has also integrated Pilates into what she does on the track. Working with Georgia Shaw, who helps elite athletes around Austin, Acuff has broken some bad habits.
“My left hip on my takeoff leg would kind of rotate out and jam into my socket when I would try to jump,” she said. “It wasn’t an ideal movement pattern, and she gave me a lot of insight into how to correct that and make that joint work more efficiently. If I hadn’t done that early on and laid that groundwork, it would have been a house of cards.”
The “ageless Amy Acuff,” as one track publication calls her, also helps others reach their potential. As a licensed acupuncturist, she shares an office with a chiropractor and a massage therapist.
“We get a lot of athletes,” Acuff said. “My patients that come to see me are in better shape than I am. I’ve got 80-year-old men that do triathlons. That’s also a great source of inspiration to see all this fitness and health around me. “
And she’s an inspiration to them, too. “They like,” Acuff said, “that they’ll have someone to cheer for this summer.”
Karen Rosen is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.