Wherever you are right now, take a look at the nearest door in your house or workplace. Look up at the height of it. The average interior door is about six feet eight inches or just over two metres in height. Now imagine trying to jump over that door and clear it. Seems almost impossible, doesn’t it?

Well, Debbie Brill could do it.

Remarkably, over thirty years since she retired from international high jump competition in 1988, Debbie remains the only Canadian woman who could. And she did it using a wholly new technique—‘The Brill Bend’—that she herself created and developed and was later adopted around the world as the predominant style of high jumping. It changed the sport. It fundamentally changed how humans jumped—one of the most basic actions humans have attempted since standing upright on two feet.

Think about that.

Some of you reading this are probably thinking ‘what about Dick Fosbury and his more celebrated ‘Fosbury Flop’?’ Well, even Fosbury has publicly acknowledged that Debbie Brill is equally deserving of the credit for this high jumping innovation. She was also developing her new ‘backward’ high jumping technique independently at the same time as Fosbury and perhaps even earlier. Fosbury’s good fortune was that he had the earlier opportunity to put his new high jumping technique on worldwide display at the 1968 Olympics. But Debbie had a far longer and arguably more successful international jumping career.

Born in Mission in 1953, Debbie’s family moved around frequently following her father’s various jobs. Besides Mission/Haney, she was also raised in Ioco, Aldergrove, Fort Langley, and Maple Ridge. It was at age nine in Aldergrove that Debbie first remembers high jumping. While attending the tiny two-room South Otter School, during Sports Day she jumped over a bar into a sandpit. Not long after her father took some fishnets and filled them with hunks of foam from a secondhand furniture store and that was her landing mat on the front lawn. Whether it was formal Sports Day competitions at school or informal jumping in the front yard, Debbie always seemed to win right from the beginning.

“Maybe it was easy for me,” she said in a 1989 interview with the BC Sports Hall of Fame. “I was very good at it. I was always better than anybody, the boys or the girls.”

Debbie wasn’t using what became known as the ‘Brill Bend’ right away—that evolved over time. Early on, she was using a version of the scissors technique that had her laying back more. Her technique continued to evolve as she explored better ways to approach, take-off, and then get up and over the bar, sometimes with variations on the scissors, other times with a unique take on the Western Roll.

“I was just trying to get my hips higher to that I could jump higher,” she said in 1989. “I never ever thought about how to go about high jumping, I did it however I could jump high. And that’s what evolved, the backwards jump.”

Debbie was discovered by Pete Swensson, a track coach in the Aldergrove-Langley area, who convinced her parents that she should join the Langley Mustangs track and field club. She began competing in local meets and then in the summer of 1966, a remarkable meeting of perhaps the two greatest high jump innovators in history took place. Barely anyone even noticed they were witnessing a historic high jump summit at the time. That’s because rather than world or Olympic champions one of the innovators was an unknown 13-year-old girl from BC, while the other was an unknown 19-year-old boy from Oregon. The Brill Bend actually first met the Fosbury Flop at a BC vs Oregon co-ed youth track meet in Vancouver. Neither was previously aware of the other. Debbie’s friends came running up to her at the meet at one point saying excitedly, “Hey, it’s amazing—there’s someone else who jumps like you!”

“[It] gave me tremendous relief and encouragement,” she recalled. “When he came up to me, I couldn’t speak. He just spoke to me and I sort of felt, Gosh! Wow!…”

Writer Bob Welch wrote about this unexpected meeting in Fosbury’s 2018 biography The Wizard of Foz:

“The meeting surprised Fosbury, too. In a world that saw Brill and Fosbury as different, the two were bonded, if even for a few hours, by their sameness. When they left to go their separate ways, neither foresaw a day when they would blend in like everyone else—not because the two of them would conform to the world, but because the world would conform to them.”

By 1968, Debbie had set the BC provincial record of 5 feet 6 inches and came in second at the Canadian national championships behind the great Diane Jones-Konihowski. Later that year Debbie jumped a personal best 5 feet 7½ inches, which was a world age class record and met the Olympic qualifying standard. But Canadian officials chose not to send any women in the high jump to the Olympics and so only Fosbury was able to show the new way of high jumping to the world.

Debbie’s first major international victory came in 1969 winning the Pacific Games meet in Japan. Working with new coach Lionel Pugh based out of UBC, in 1970 while still only 16 years old she became the first North American woman to clear 6 feet and only the 11th in the world.

“I walked into a void,” Debbie told Wendy Long in her 1995 book Celebrating Excellence. “There was nobody in North America jumping more than 5’9” when I started and that was so low. I just flew right by it. I didn’t even realize it, but within three years of jumping I was already in the top few of the world, even though I didn’t know what that meant.”

Debbie won her first Commonwealth Games gold medal that same year in 1970. She later added a silver at the 1978 Commonwealth Games, a second gold in 1982, and finished fifth in 1986. She represented Canada at three Olympic Games (1972, 1976, 1984) finishing in the top-ten twice (8th in 1972 and 5th in 1984). Her best chance for an Olympic medal may have been taken from her during the 1980 Olympic boycott. She was ranked number one in the world in 1979 going into that Olympic year. She took gold at the 1971 Pan American Games, finished 4th in 1975, and rebounded to take silver in 1979. She would win competitions at dozens of major international meets around the world. From 1970 to 1985, she was ranked in the Track and Field News world top-ten 12 times. She won the Canadian national high jump championship 11 times in her career, to go along with two US national titles and one UK title. She was named BC’s Athlete of the Decade in 1980 and she became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1983.

Debbie set the Canadian national women’s high jump record in both indoor (1.99m) and outdoor (1.98m) competition, in 1982 and 1984 respectively. She first broke the Canadian national record in 1969 at just 16 years of age. She remains the Canadian record holder to this day, having held the national mark for over 50 years now. Her 1.99m indoor leap in 1982 was also a world record and she set it just months after having her first son Neil. Many women have commented on how inspired they were by this accomplishment coming at a time when many still felt that the athletic careers of women were over after having children. Once again, Debbie changed the way people thought and reshaped our idea of what was possible.

Even after retiring from open competition and taking a long break, Debbie returned to Masters competition in the 1990s and there too she re-wrote the record book. In 1999 she set a world Masters record in the 45+ age bracket with a jump of 1.76m. Five years later, she set the 50+ world Masters record with a jump of 1.60m.

“For me, it wasn’t just high jumping to win medals,” she said. “It was always much more. It was the kind of freedom you get, a sense of freedom of movement and expression. You have to move smoothly, in one piece, and have all parts working together. So when you put it all together it’s an extraordinary feeling, the most wonderful feeling.”

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.