By now Debbie Brill should be used to the altitude. For nearly half of her 29 years she has been soaring higher more often than all but a few of the world’s top women high jumpers. But nothing could have prepared her for the two consecutive nights last January when, after a year-long layoff from competition and training, she leaped 6’5¼” and 6’6¼”, setting first an American and then a world indoor record. (Both records have since been broken by Idaho’s Colleen Rienstra Sommer, who jumped 6’6½” only three weeks later.) “It was all in my attitude,” explains the 5’9″, 130-pound Brill, who claims both U.S. and Canadian citizenship. “I was weaker than I’d ever been in competition, and I had no expectations of myself. But I felt excited, glad to get back to the basics.”
In fact, few jumpers have gone as far back to the basics as Debbie. Only five months before her world record she had given birth to 6-pound 9-ounce Neil Bogart Ray, whose father, New Wave musician Greg Ray, has been the man in her life for nearly nine years. As Brill competed, the cooing, diapered infant sat contentedly in a car baby seat on the infield. “Like most athletes, I used to be always worrying about myself,” says Debbie. “Since I had Bogie I’m more relaxed. I’m not so consumed by my jumping.”
Born in Mission, B.C., the daughter of an American mother and a Canadian carpenter who struggled to support his five kids, Debbie has been an athlete almost from infancy. “When I was 5,” she recalls, “I decided to race my father because I just knew I could beat him. I cried when I lost.” At 13, she realized her future lay in the high jump. “It suited my temperament,” she says. “I didn’t make friends easily, so team sports were out. But when I was running and jumping, I felt I could fly.”
Using the unorthodox “Brill Bend,” a sort of backward flip over the bar that is similar to the famous “Fosbury Flop,” Debbie won the Canadian national championship in 1968, at 14. Two years later she became the first North American woman to clear six feet, and found herself ranked 12th in the world.
Soon she became a celebrity on the track-and-field circuit and discovered that the toughest bar to clear was mental, not metal. Embarrassed by her fame in Canada (“It was like the world was closing in on me”), Brill abruptly quit jumping five months before the 1972 Olympics, then came back before the Games but finished a disappointing eighth at Munich. Dropping out of the sport entirely for two years, she hitched around California and British Columbia before meeting Ray in a bar in his hometown of Maple Ridge, B.C. Within a month they were living together. “Greg filled a big empty part of my life,” she explains. “He made me feel confident and stable.”
Returning to jumping, Debbie won the Canadian nationals in 1974 and made the Olympic team two years later, but again fell far short of a medal. Determined to do better in Moscow in 1980, she began training vigorously for the first time ever (“It was like having a new body”), but once the boycott was announced, she supported Canada’s decision to observe it. “I could have had a gold,” she believes, “but I didn’t approve of what the Russians had done in Afghanistan.” More than that, she sensed something was missing in her life. “Around the end of 1979 I said, ‘Greg, get prepared. We’re going to have a kid,’ ” she recalls. “He got a little panicky.”
Today Debbie and Greg, 32, share a farmhouse near Vancouver with Bogie, Brill’s sister Connie and the U.S. women’s javelin champion, Kate Schmidt. For now, marriage is an option not seriously considered. “Greg and I thought about it real hard,” says Debbie, “and if I found a good reason to get married, I would. But I’m a person who needs answers for everything.” Unfortunately for her rivals, motherhood has ended any ambivalence she might have felt about jumping. “I feel great,” she says. “Now all I have to do is get in shape.”