RED OAK — In a world void of sport, one Red Oak alumna continued her reign Thursday.
Louise Ritter, a 1976 Red Oak High School graduate and three-time Olympic qualifier, was voted as a “landslide” winner for the first USA Track-and-Field Throwback Athlete of the Week award.
The announcement was made official by the USATF via a Thursday afternoon press release. Ritter won the fan vote with more than 50% of the 600-plus ballots cast.
“In the absence of competition during the COVID-19 pandemic, USATF is taking a weekly look back at some of the great efforts by American track-and-field athletes through the years,” noted the USATF release of the competition that includes fan voting.
For those who aren’t yet aware of how Louise Ritter Rd in Red Oak got its name, here’s your history lesson.
Ritter is a world-renowned high jumper who graduated from Red Oak High School in 1976 — 27 years before fellow Olympic gold medalist and 2016 Red Oak graduate, Michelle Carter. Carter won her gold in 2016 and was set to defend that medal in 2020. Her story is on hold for now.
As for Ritter, she began her climb toward the pantheon of USA Olympic greatness just before the U.S. boycotted the XXII Olympiad in Moscow, Russia (1980).
Ritter, while still enrolled at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, first set the women’s high jump American Record (AR) of 6-foot-3.86 en route to winning gold in the 1979 Pan-Am Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She added a centimeter to that mark less than one year later with a jump of 6-foot-4.25 (1.94m) in Denton.
Four years later, at the age of 26, Ritter finally had her opportunity to compete for a medal as an Olympian. She breezed through the qualifying round of the XXIII Olympiad in Los Angeles, only to finish eighth with a best-height cleared of 6-foot-2.77 (1.91m)
It was a disappointing outcome, to say the least, especially since Ritter had previously shown she had the ability to clear higher heights.
Four years later, and just before the XXIV Olympiad, Ritter proved her high-jump prowess by clearing 6-foot-8 (2.03m) during a meet in Austin in 1988. It was yet another AR for Ritter, a record she’d ultimately set and re-set 10 times over her career
That momentum carried to the 1988 Seoul Olympics just seven weeks later. Ritter, standing at 5-foot-10 and 132 pounds, was favored to win the silver medal behind powerhouse Bulgarian high-jumper Stefka Kostadinova.
According to Frank Litsky of The New York Times, Kostadinova was “an off-the-board favorite for the gold: world champion, world record-holder, world-ranked No. 1.”
In the same article, Litsky described Ritter as having “blond hair and a twang as thick as Texas barbecue sauce.”
It was quite literally Red Oak against the world, especially as the championship field of 12 quickly dwindled to three in less than an hour and a half.
The bar eventually moved to 6-foot-7, and soon only Kostadinova and Ritter remained, meaning Red Oak was assured its first silver medal. Both had cleared all six previous heights, as well, which included the two clearing 6-foot-7 on their first attempt.
With just the two jumpers remaining, the bar moved to a potential Olympic record height of 6-foot-8.
The tandem missed all three jumps at the potentially historic height, prompting a jump-off with Kostadinova tabbed to jump first thanks to a blind draw.
Kostadinova cleared the bar with her hips on the first attempt, only to catch it with her lower leg. The missed jump set the stage for Ritter to win the Olympic gold outright.
“When Stefka missed her fourth attempt,” Ritter recalled to The Times, ”I thought if I didn’t make it, I might not get a chance again because she’s not the type to leave the door open.”
Ritter took one step, one hop, 15 athletic strides and cleared the bar at 6-foot-8 (2.01m) — by the slightest of margins.
She then hit the blue mat, jumped to her feet and waved to the crowd on the other side of the track while the red high-jump bar sat atop its posts.
“That’s it! The competition is over! There is no more jumping! Louise Ritter has won the gold medal! She can’t believe it and, to be honest with you, neither can I,” NBC host Charlie Jones exclaimed on television. “After last year’s failure in Rome, they said Louise Ritter could not jump in the big ones. She was favored for a silver medal, but many people said if she jumps like last year, she won’t even finish in the top six. This is a gigantic upset!”
Ritter had become the first American woman to win an Olympic high jump since Mildred McDaniel 1956.
McDaniel cleared just 5-foot-9. 25, nearly one foot lower than Ritter’s mark 32 years later.
”I would never take anything away from Stefka,” Ritter told The Times after her Olympic victory. ”I think she’s the greatest female high jumper the world has produced to this time. But today was the day we had to jump, and I did it.
”I used to think she was not beatable. But last year, I beat her in Zurich and Nice and lost to her in a jump-off. Now I’m one-and-one in jump-offs with her. I’ll let her have that one and I’ll take this one.”
Kostadinova still holds the women’s high-jump record of 6-foot-10.25 inches to this day. She set the mark in 1987 — prior to Ritter defeating her in Seoul.
It then took 16 years for someone to best Ritter’s Olympic record (OR). Yelena Slesarenko (Russia) set the new OR in 2004 with a jump of 6-foot-9 (2.06m) in Athens, Greece.
Ritter ultimately won the USA Track & Field indoor championship in high jump five times (1979, 1980, 1983, 1988, 1989) and was a four-time winner of the USA Track & Field Outdoor championships (1978, 1983, 1985, 1986). She also won national collegiate high jump championships in 1977, 1978 and 1979, and ultimately obtained her bachelor’s degree in 1982.
Ritter was inducted into the Texas Woman’s University Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 1995.
Oct. 19 is now observed as “Louise Ritter Day” on the TWU campus.
As for the entire reason for this trip down memory lane, the USATF Athlete of the Week program is in its 19th year of recognizing outstanding performers at all levels of the sport. USATF names a new honoree each week and features the athlete on USATF.org. Selections are based on top performances and results from the previous week.
According to the USATF release, other historical performances of note from the March 23-29 period in USATF history include:
- March 23 — Catherine Prime American record in women’s discus throw, 31.11m/102-0.75 at Tallahassee in 1924
- March 24 — Steve Prefontaine American record in 6 Miles, 27:09.4 at Bakersfield in 1973
- March 25 — Maren Seidler American record in women’s shot put, 18.45m/60-6.5 at San Jose in 1978 (had 4 throws past the existing American record)
- March 26 — Ben Eastman American record in 440y, 46.4 at Stanford in 1932
- March 27 — Mark Murro American record in men’s javelin throw, 91.44m/300-0 at Tempe, AZ in 1970
- March 28 — Dave Roberts World Record in men’s pole vault, 5.65m/18-6.5 at the Florida Relays in 1975
Previous 2020 winners of the USATF Athlete of the Week award, which was comprised solely of current athletes, includes:
- January 9, Miranda Melville
- January 16, Paul Perry
- January 23, Natosha Rogers
- January 30, Tyler Day
- February 6, Devin Dixon
- February 13, Elle Purrier
- February 20, Tori Franklin
- February 27, Sandi Morris
- March 4, Abdi Abdirahman
- March 12 Marielle Hall
- March 19, Tim Tollefson
There was no recipient on Thursday, March 26 while USATF decided how to proceed with the award.
USATF welcomes nominations for USATF Athlete of the Week. Those interested should send a detailed email about his/her performance to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fans can follow along with #USATF on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook.
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith