Bending Mind and Body to Jump Higher

What determines why someone can jump higher than others? The mind of the jumper may be the key. Reporter David Kohn talks to athletes and experts to find out.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Among elite athletes, only some can jump to incredible heights. Muscles certainly play a part, but Baltimore Sun science writer David Kohn says the mind of the jumper may be the key.

Mr. DAVID KOHN (Science Writer, The Baltimore Sun): Almost everyone can jump, but only some of us can really leap. I can't.

At the height of my playground career, I can get maybe twelve inches off the ground. Compare that to someone like Michael Jordan, who in his prime could jump four times higher: enough to hop on my kitchen counter without bending his legs.

What is it that gives some people that ability? In search of an answer, I went to New York City to talk to a real expert.

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Unidentified Announcer: ...champion out of Kansas State, Gwen Wentland.

Gwen Wentland is a world-class high jumper. Last year, she won the U.S. Indoor High Jumping Championship. Since she was a little girl, Wentland has been obsessed with overcoming gravity.

Ms. GWEN WENTLAND (High Jumper): I love to jump. I mean, I had a pogo stick. I would spend hours on that. I think my parents thought I had a problem because I would be out in the garage trying to, you know, see how long I could stay up on my pogo stick.

Mr. KOHN: Then came the trampoline.

Ms. WENTLAND: It was only one of those little trampolines, but I would sit there and jump on it in our basement in the wintertime and hit my head on the ceiling, because, you know, it was not very tall. And so my whole life has been consumed by this jumping.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KOHN: Strength has a lot to do with what Wentland does. She is a powerful woman with very muscular legs. Jumping researchers agree that muscle power is crucial, but they also agree that muscles alone don't fully explain people like Wentland or Jordan.

There are lots of ideas about what else is important. Long bones or muscle fibers that fire especially fast. One scientist I talked to studies frogs, which actually wind up their tendons like slingshots and pitch themselves forward. He thinks humans may do something similar. Then there's another theory, which I find especially intriguing. It might be intelligence - not just muscle power - that enables people like Wentland to get so high.

Maybe Wentland is just smarter than the rest of us about going airborne. Maybe all those hours pogo-sticking and trampolining taught her something that the rest of us never quite grasped. On some conscious or unconscious level, she learned how to launch herself upward with utmost efficiency.

Or maybe she was just born with that knowledge, just as Beethoven or Louis Armstrong had an extraordinary ear for music. Some scientists think the brain accumulates set movement patterns and then activates them when needed. But experiments in which people must jump from unfamiliar positions show they do pretty well, which undermines the preset pattern theory.

Some experts think muscles and nerves may somehow have their own neurological intelligence - some way to adjust on the fly with minimal input from the brain. If so, Wentland's muscles must be pretty smart.

Ms. WENTLAND: I feel explosive. That is the thing about my muscles. I feel explosive. I feel like if somebody lets me run five steps, three steps, I can go forever in the air.

Mr. KOHN: In New York, she didn't even do her best, and still managed to clear six feet, two inches - which means she flew over what is most likely the top of your head.

For NPR News, I'm David Kohn.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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