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� 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 After spending the two previous years 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�", 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 me again."
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�", 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�" and 7'8�". "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�". That leap was the best in the world this season, the best by an American in four years and 4� 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 retired."
Hemingway took three shots at breaking the U.S. indoor record of 7'10�" and missed on each attempt, but not by much. ("The world outdoor record is 8'�"," 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."