When he needs a break from his job as a sales manager with
communications giant US West in Denver, Matt Hemingway steps out
from his cubicle and stares at a six-foot-long piece of athletic
tape stretched across a wall near the ceiling. He has drawn a
black line along the top of the tape. The line is so high that
most people in the office pass beneath without noticing it.
The line represents Hemingway's goal. If he achieves it, his
tale may become one of the more intriguing among this year's
U.S. Olympic track and field athletes. The line is 7'11" above
the floor. "That line would be an American outdoor high jump
record," says the 6'7" Hemingway while taking a four-step
approach toward the wall as if he were going to leap right into
the ceiling tiles. "Looks doable, doesn't it?"
That's more than a rhetorical question to anyone familiar with
Hemingway's comeback. After 2 1/2 years away from the sport, he
reemerged in October and now, having dominated the U.S. Indoor
Championships in March, appears to be America's best hope for a
high jump medal in Sydney. "Matt is for real," says three-time
Olympian and former world-record holder Dwight Stones. "He must
have guys in this event shaking in their boots."
In 1991, as a high school senior in Buena Vista, Colo., the then
6'6" Hemingway jumped 7'4" (still a Colorado schoolboy record)
and landed a scholarship to track and field powerhouse Arkansas.
While he gained a solid technical foundation and increased
strength as a Razorback, Hemingway overtrained and became
frustrated with his lack of progress. He finished the '96 season
as an NCAA runner-up and hit 7'6 1/2", a personal best at the
time, at the Olympic trials. That, however, was good only for
fourth place, which meant he missed going to the Atlanta Games
by one spot.
The next season his focus and spirit waned, and after a season's
best of only 7'3" he quit the sport. "Matt was miserable and
struggling and frustrated," says his wife, Kate. "He had become
obsessed with jumping, and one day he realized there was nothing
joyous in it for him anymore."
After spending the two previous years as a whitewater raft guide
in Colorado, in 1999 Hemingway signed on at US West. During his
lunch breaks he began playing basketball at a gym a few blocks
from his office. He had long been able to dunk a basketball but
last fall he noticed that he could take off from the foul line
and slam the ball with two hands easier than ever before. The
more he did it, the more he found himself enjoying taking
flight, and just as quickly as it had left him, Hemingway's urge
to high-jump returned. "Sometimes you're so into a painting that
you stand too close to the picture," says Hemingway, 27. "Not
until you step back from it and gain perspective can you put it
into focus, enjoy it and realize, Hey, there's a nice frame
around it, and a wall, and other paintings in the room too."
Matt's perseverance runs in the family. His father, Tom, is a
retired U.S. Marine lieutenant colonel. During the Vietnam War,
Tom used a pocketknife to remove a piece of cartilage from his
knee, which had locked while he was out on a long-range patrol.
One of Tom's mottos is, There are two ways to do things: right
and over. "Matt didn't quite get it right the first time," says
Tom. "So now I guess he's doing it over. His gift for jumping
didn't go anywhere."
After consulting Kate and taking several weeks to weigh his
decision, Matt hooked up with Mike Gilbert, who coaches Team US
West, the company's Olympic sponsorship program for track and
field. Together they planned a low-key training schedule to
reintroduce Hemingway to jumping. Hemingway says he hasn't lost
any of his laserlike focus on high jumping; he has just learned
how to turn it off away from the track. "There's great freedom
in knowing that I left this sport and I didn't need it," he
says. "The last thing I want is for track and field to consume
Gilbert's initial plan was for Hemingway to take a year to get
back to where he had been in 1997, but during the third workout
of his comeback, Hemingway leaped 7'4 1/2", his best practice
jump ever. About two months later he entered two small meets in
Colorado Springs and turned in personal bests of 7'7 1/4" and
7'8 3/4". "Can he jump a world record? Or win a medal at the
Olympics?" says Gilbert. "He certainly hasn't done anything that
would make me say he couldn't. It's one thing to hang a line in
your office; it's another altogether to believe you can get over
it. Matt is fearless. That's the key to all this."
Hemingway made believers out of everyone else in March at the
U.S. Indoors in Atlanta. With his combination of speed, power
and fluidity, he won with a meet-record jump of 7'9 3/4". That
leap was the best in the world this season, the best by an
American in four years and 4 1/2 inches higher than that of any
of his competitors, including reigning Olympic champion and U.S.
outdoor record holder Charles Austin. "Matt is so tall and so
gifted he's in that borderline freak zone," says Stones. "I bet
the other guys in the sport were all praying that he'd stay
Hemingway took three shots at breaking the U.S. indoor record of
7'10 1/2" and missed on each attempt, but not by much. ("The world
outdoor record is 8' 1/2"," says Hemingway, "and it's doable.")
Austin and Stones watched as Hemingway made his second approach
toward the bar. In midflight they turned to each other and said,
"He can make this" before his foot clipped the bar. After the
meet Stones told Hemingway, "Whatever it is you're doing, don't
change a thing."
That's Hemingway's plan. This summer he will continue to low-key
his comeback with a string of meets in Europe before returning
to the U.S. for the Olympic trials in July. "If I continue to
jump the way I know I can, the Olympics will fall into place,"
says Hemingway, "but I'm still not going to wake up every
morning and think, Sydney, Sydney, Sydney. No way. Not now. I
wake up every morning and think, Breakfast, breakfast,
fall into place."