NORTH OMAHA'S TRACK QUEEN

Maggie King in 1955 as the Tech High student eyed national high jump honors.

She grew up in the same Logan Fontenelle projects unit as Bob Gibson — 2212 Charles St. She walked the Tech High hallways with Bob Boozer.

Maggie King nearly beat them both to the national stage.

While Gibby and Booz overcame racial injustice to be great, the magnificent Maggie confronted gender barriers, too.

Omaha high schools offered girls only one sport in the '50s — tennis. But Josh Gibson's never-ending youth programs gave Maggie more chances to compete. She shined in basketball, softball, volleyball, running, tennis, table tennis and box hockey. One event made her extraordinary: the high jump.

In July 1954, King leaped 5-foot-2 at a city parks and recreation meet, the second-best women's mark in the country that year — 1¾ inches better than gold at the national AAU meet.

Remember, this predated Dick Fosbury, who revolutionized the event in 1968 with his backward flop. In the '50s, high jumpers curled over the bar, stomach down. Maggie's mark was even more extraordinary because she cleared the bar like a hurdler.

"Boy, she was quite an athlete," Rodney Wead recalled.

Maggie's single mother raised nine kids. Older brother Tony boxed in Golden Gloves tournaments. Younger brother Bill made all state in basketball. Neither had Maggie's talent. She became a phenom, attracting praise from famous black athletes Jesse Owens and Toni Stone.

In '55, the Crosstown Athletic Club, a black organization, funded King's Pan-Am Games tryout in Chicago. She suffered an injury on her second jump and settled for third place — 4-foot-10.

Maggie's athleticism captivated her believers, but she lacked expertise and opportunity. Word spread that she didn't have the coaching or funds to pursue the '56 Games in Melbourne. The U.S. Olympic committee wasn't happy.

"You proved at the Pan-American tryouts that you were real Olympic material when, as a beginner, you missed making the team by an eyelash," said Roxanne Andersen, U.S. women's track and field committee chairman. "It seems to me incredible that the city of Omaha would not get behind a prospective Olympian."

In March '56, Olympic pole vaulter Bob Richards came to Omaha and visited the 5-6 King, who explained to him her "unorthodox style," The World-Herald reported.

She fascinated the Olympic gold medalist. Richards called for a pencil and paper, and, 20 minutes later, he handed Maggie a set of sketches and instructions on the "roll" technique.

"If you can jump 5-2 now," Richards said, "perfection of this style should enable you to go 5-8 or 5-9 and break the world's record."

As he left, Richards urged Maggie to train diligently: "See you in Melbourne."

From that point, North Omaha rallied behind the quiet, independent King. Local businesses, schools and coaches contributed time and money. Maggie set a personal-best in practice, 5-3, half an inch higher than the IOC's qualifying height.

But she felt the pressure. During a softball game in August, King fainted and spent the night in the hospital. The doctor diagnosed exhaustion.

One week later, Maggie and her mom boarded a plane for the first time and flew to Washington, D.C., for the Olympic tryouts. She cleared 4-11, fourth-best in the country. Not high enough.

King returned to Tech High for her senior year and graduated in '57. The Omaha Star reported that she had a scholarship offer to Tennessee A&I, but in September '58 she joined the Army instead.

Maggie spent the next 23 years traveling the world as an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist. Germany. Korea. Tunisia. Alaska. She won championships in Army tennis and softball leagues before retiring in Texas. She died Valentine's Day 2014.

Sixty-five years after Maggie's stunning jump at the city track meet, only a few North Omahans remember her talent. But if she came around today, it's hard not to wonder …

How high could she go?

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