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Nicky Saunders and a record still standing 30 years later

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Jumping for joy: Clarance “Nicky” Saunders making his winning clearance at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand
Sporting great: Clarance “Nicky” Saunders was acknowledged by the Bermuda Government in 2018 after Flora Duffy emulated his Commonwealth Games achievement by winning gold in Australia (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

It was 30 years ago that Clarance “Nicky” Saunders set the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Games alight with his glorious, record-breaking performance in the men’s high jump in Auckland, New Zealand.

Nicky was competition-ready; he was in the best competition shape of his life at that time. The Games were held from January 24 to February 3, 1990. Nicky sacrificed his university studies at Boston University that year to train and prepare for the Games.

We mapped out a course of training, with the appropriate tweaks, that would have him competitively ready. The goal was very specific: to win the gold medal!

We had no false illusions about the quality of the competitors that would be at the Commonwealth Games. They would be an awesome challenge that would boast some of the world’s best high jumpers.

Gerry Swan was the Bermuda athletics coach for two decades between 1984 and 2009

Nicky was not a newcomer to the Commonwealth Games. He had competed at the 1982 Games held in Brisbane, Australia — while he was still a junior athlete!

On that occasion, and at 19 years of age, he earned the bronze medal with a leap of 7ft 2.25in.

At the 1986 Commonwealth Games, he was among the favourites for the gold medal; however, the Bermuda team never got to compete because of political intervention that resulted in the withdrawal of the team from the Games in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The year 1990, though, presented a different dynamic. Between 1982 and 1990, Nicky had grown in the sport. He had developed into a polished, formidable competitor and proved himself to be a world-class athlete:

• He had proved his competitive mettle at the NCAA Championships

• His athletic prowess had been on full display on the IAAF Grand Prix circuit

• He finished fifth at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea

Unlike 1982, there were expectations of a medal in some quarters and those expectations exponentially grew after Nicky publicly declared that he was going to New Zealand to win the gold medal.

Despite the existence of the Elite Athletes Fund in Bermuda, Nicky’s sole source of financial support to assist with his preparation for the Games came from the sponsorship of $10,000.00 provided by Belco, thanks to the influence of Alf Oughton.

Nicky’s training went well — and at times he performed so extremely and unusually well that I had to constrain my excitement to stay grounded and remain focused for the upcoming challenge.

I will provide a brief explanation in relation to the latter. I coached Nicky for several years. During the early years of our coach-athlete relationship, I became aware of how Nicky was “psychologically wired” as an athlete. He trained most keenly but rarely jumped well in training — he would struggle to clear 6ft 6in or 7ft in training — and not because of a lack of effort.

However, when the time came to compete, when it was “showtime”, on more occasions than not, that is when he shone — when it was most important and most mattered.

The competition environment caused his neuromuscular synapses and volitional qualities to collectively fire in a way that training could not evoke. Competition usually brought out the best that was within him. So I learnt early in our relationship that when Nicky cleared or came close to clearing certain heights in training, that usually translated to a competition performance that would be five, six, seven or more inches higher ... that’s just the way he was psychologically wired.

In 1990, and as Nicky peaked for the main competition, he had sessions that indicated something special would be on offer at the Commonwealth Games’ high jump competition. His weight-training sessions had an unusual explosiveness to them. During one of his high jump sessions, he came close to clearing heights of 7ft 3.25in and 7ft 4.5in. He had never, never previously executed such quality attempts in training. I knew he was ready to produce something special. More importantly, he knew and articulated that he was “ready”.

At a different session, he was required to have three attempts at 8ft. I recall that after he had completed his warm-up and stood near and almost under the crossbar, he remarked to me as he looked up at the bar: “Gerry, that is high. That is really high!”

While he didn’t clear the bar on any of those attempts, the main purpose was to fortify the psychological frame for the competition.

On the occasion of the men’s high jump final at the 1990 Commonwealth Games, held on February 1 at the Mount Smart Stadium, Nicky delivered a very special performance. He earned the gold medal with a superlative vertical leap of 7ft 8.75in — but not before receiving a temporary scare from Dalton Grant, of England.

Grant had struggled at the early heights of the competition. He was unsuccessful with his first attempts at 7ft 2.5in and 7ft 3.75in. Additionally, Grant was unsuccessful with his first two attempts at 7ft 6in before clearing that height on his third attempt. Meanwhile, Nicky cleared 7ft 3.75in on his first attempt, passed at 7ft 5in and cleared 7ft 6in on his first attempt.

At 7ft 7.25in, the dynamics of the men’s high jump competition changed, with Grant clearing that height on his first attempt while Nicky passed. Grant then cleared 7ft 8in on his second attempt while Nicky was unsuccessful with his first two attempts at 7ft 8in. Grant was now leading the competition and in gold-medal position. Nicky chose to pass his third attempt at 7ft 8in and opted instead to jump at 7ft 8.75in.

Nicky’s first attempt at 7ft 8.75in was a “must do” clearance or be eliminated from the competition and receive the silver medal. The height was new territory for Nicky. He had never previously cleared that height. He had to produce a personal best, a world-class performance just to stay in the competition, and to stay on course for the gold.

Nicky did what the circumstances required. Composed, confident and summoning his reservoir of reinforced volitional qualities, together with the assertive rhythm of his purposeful, 15-stride run-up, he cleared 7ft 8.75in with that first attempt. There were spontaneous expressions of joy after Nicky’s successful achievement ... it seemed like the whole stadium of spectators erupted in unified excitement.

Nicky jumped up from the high jump landing bed and let out a loud, indiscernible expression of joy with outstretched arms and then performed a celebratory back somersault on the high jump landing pit.

I gave double fist pumps as I jumped up from my seat in the stands, and I could hear the cheers of sprinter Troy Douglas — above everyone else — who let everyone know who was close enough to hear him that Nicky is the “bie” from Bermuda.

Grant was unable to answer the higher challenge. After victory had been secured, Nicky made one unsuccessful attempt at 7ft 10.5in.

Nicky Saunders had earned the gold medal and, simultaneously, set Commonwealth and Commonwealth Games records.

In 2020, 30 years after that glorious achievement, Nicky’s performance of 7ft 8.75in in the men’s high jump still remains the Commonwealth Games record.

The Commonwealth Games are held every four years. There have been no fewer than seven editions since that exciting occasion on February 1, 1990 in New Zealand and no athlete has been able to equal or surpass the mark of Bermudian Clarance “Nicky” Saunders.

To provide a closing context of Nicky’s performance, his 7ft 8.75in clearance would have secured a medal at every Olympic Games that has been held since.

Records will be broken; however, for now I still glow and feel immense pride from Clarance “Nicky” Saunders’s historic performance and achievement — a bit late in this most extraordinary of years, but happy 30th anniversary, Nicky!

Your record still stands and does Bermuda proud!

• Gerry Swan was the Bermuda athletics coach for two decades between 1984 and 2009

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Published November 05, 2020 at 8:01 am (Updated November 04, 2020 at 4:32 pm)

Nicky Saunders and a record still standing 30 years later

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