The Local Olympic Movement: Acuff: A model in persistence

Published 12:12 am Thursday, August 4, 2016

This is the sixth in a seven-part series on Olympic participants from greater Port Arthur. Friday: Inika McPherson

One day at school, Amy Acuff’s teacher told the entire classroom something that has stuck in her head ever since.

“You know how special these people are doing these things?” Acuff quoted the teacher as saying to The Daily Dose. “None of you in the room will ever be good enough to be doing what they’re doing.”

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Funny how teachers can be proven wrong.

Acuff was 9 when she and her family took a trip to Los Angeles to watch the 1984 Summer Olympics, shortly after moving from Port Arthur to Corpus Christi.

“It left a pretty good impression on me as to what was possible in the sport,” she said. “Having something visible and memorable like that brought it into my consciousness.”

In a year when Corpus Christi native Terry Labonte stormed to his first of two Cup championships in NASCAR, Acuff was inspired to become the city’s next great athlete. Almost three decades later, she’d earn her own way to the Olympics for a fifth time.

But Corpus Christi isn’t where her track dreams began.

That would be in Port Arthur, where she was born July 14, 1975. Her grandfather’s second cousin was country music legend Roy Acuff, who died in 1992 at age 89.

Little Amy was 5 when she attended an older brother’s track meet.

One year later, she competed in sprints and the long jump.

The storied track career was on.

Acuff joined the girls track and field program at Calallen High in Corpus Christi, which did not have a coach. Growing into a 6-foot-2 frame, Acuff was forced to teach herself the fine art of the high jump.

She won the UIL state championship with a 5-foot-10 jump as a freshman in 1990, setting a Class 4A record. The next year, she set a state record of 6-2.25 in the meet.

As a junior, she jumped 6 feet to three-peat. She finished the four-peat with a 6-2 leap.

Acuff earned a spot on the 1993 Pan American Junior Olympic team for the U.S. and won gold in that event. The next month in Innsbruck, Austria, she jumped 6-4 to set a high school record broken by current Olympian Vashti Cunningham.

Next for Amy was Los Angeles — this time as a collegian.

The biology major at UCLA won the NCAA indoor championship in 1994, 1995 and 1997 and outdoor titles in 1995 and 1996. During her reign in college, she won the first two of six U.S. outdoor national titles (1995 and 1997) and qualified for her first Olympiad, which was held in Atlanta.

For all of her success on the national stage, the Olympics were apparently a totally different beast. Acuff finished 24th in qualifying in Atlanta and slid to 31st four years later in Sydney.

Acuff was lucky to even compete in Sydney, as she was involved in a car accident on Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles three weeks before trials. But she performed better internationally over the next three years, finishing as high as second in the 2001 IAAF Grand Prix Final.

Already a model of national success, Acuff’s charm along with her athletic skill earned her a spot on the cover of Playboy magazine, as well as pictorials in Esquire and Maxim. She may have disappointed male readers when she married pole vaulter Tye Harvey in 2004.

That year, Acuff had her best chance at an Olympic medal.

She was in position to win the bronze in Athens after clearing 1.99 meters, or 6 feet, 6.34 inches. Vita Styopina of Ukraine achieved a personal record at 2.02 to move into a tie for first, and Acuff, whose personal best of 2.01 was set in Zurich in 2003, bypassed it for a shot to pass Styopina with a 2.04 jump. Acuff missed on three attempts and finished fourth.

Dwight Stones, a longtime field events analyst for NBC, reportedly said: “That is a decision she will think about the rest of her life.”

Acuff, who won the 1997 World University Games gold, earned her last international medal two years later in the World Cup, a bronze. She failed to advance from qualifying in the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics, finishing 19th and 20th respectively.

But she was still one of America’s most dominant jumpers of the 2000s decade, winning four more U.S. national championships outdoor (2001, 2003, 2005, 2007) and five indoor (2001, 2004, 2007, 2008 and 2009).

She retired in 2009 when she found out she was pregnant with her first child with husband and former pole vaulter Tye Harvey and worked as a licensed acupuncturist, but came back to make the London Games.

“Jumping stays fresh for me because I’m constantly open to refinement and improvement,” she told The Daily Dose.

A bid for a sixth straight Olympiad fell short recently. Acuff could not top her third-place finish in the 2015 U.S. championships and was 14th in this year’s trials.

But Acuff got to the Olympics. Five straight times.

And another Port Arthur native is continuing the Olympic high jump tradition.

Sources: USA Track and Field; University Interscholastic League; The Daily Dose; Wikipedia

I.C. Murrell: 721-2435. Twitter: @ICMurrellPANews

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

email author More by I.C.