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Jim Kaplan
January 31, 1972
Pat Matzdorf has jumped higher than anyone, a feat celebrated almost exclusively in Sheboygan
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January 31, 1972

Getting Up In The World

Pat Matzdorf has jumped higher than anyone, a feat celebrated almost exclusively in Sheboygan

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At the very least, Pat Matzdorf could have been offended by being asked to appear on What's My Line? Here he had just set a world high-jump record of 7'6�"—an exploit that is recognized, in the words of one publicist, "on the banks of the Euphrates River"—and he was being introduced to a panel of celebrities as some kind of mystery man. "Is this in any line of sport?" Sally Ann Howes wanted to know. "Do you ever leave the ground?" Alan Alda queried. "Is it a broad jump?" Well, what could it be? It was Arlene Francis' turn and she thought it might be barrel jumping. It remained for Soupy Sales to salvage the panel's dignity. He guessed correctly—on his second try.

If Matzdorf's name evokes little response today, it meant even less on July 3, 1971. This was the second day of the U.S.- U.S.S.R.-World All-Stars meet in Berkeley, Calif. As of that afternoon, the world record in the high jump was Valeri Brumel's 7'5�", which had stood for eight years, making it the oldest untied record in men's track and field. As of that afternoon, Matzdorf's personal best was an indoor 7'3", a height exceeded by 12 other active jumpers, and he was expected to finish behind his more experienced teammate, Reynaldo Brown of the California Track Club. Indeed, when Matzdorf's older brother LeRoy heard on the radio that a new high-jump record had been set, he assumed that Reynaldo had finally done it.

But history is not made in existential flashes. Those close to Matzdorf knew he had the stuff. "It didn't surprise me," Brown said. "Pat psychs himself like no one else. I told him he'd have his day sooner or later." Tim Heikkila, America's third-ranking jumper, had seen Matzdorf clear 7'2" by several inches and get his body over greater heights, only to brush off the bar with his trail leg. Matzdorf's coach at the University of Wisconsin, Bill Perrin, had set 7'5" as a goal for 1971, 7'7" for 1972.

Consider the similarities between Matzdorf and an earlier sleeper, Brumel. Like Matzdorf's, Brumel's rise was meteoric: in less than a year he broke seven feet for the first time and finished second in the 1960 Olympics. Their styles are similar, too, although Brumel uses the conventional straight-leg straddle while Matzdorf favors the less orthodox bent-knee approach—an extremely quick run up, a tremendous swooping motion of the arms and a takeoff so powerful it resembles a blastoff. Both are serious students of the jump, and quiet men from working-class backgrounds. Brumel began jumping at 14, and at 21 set the world record that Matzdorf broke. Matzdorf began jumping at 16 and broke the record at 21.

But to imply that Matzdorf has consciously aped Brumel is an injustice to the imaginative figure of Bill Perrin. To be sure, he recognized that the Russians' emphasis on strength was preferable to the casual run-and-stretch exercises so long revered in the U.S. But he felt, too, that the Russians overemphasized total body development to the detriment of the specific leg and arm muscles so crucial to the high jump. Perrin has his jumpers hop up stadium benches to simulate the moves made in the event and to develop power where it counts. Perrin also has invented, and sells to more than 1,000 schools at home and abroad, a series of seven-foot rubber cables with 1,000-to 4,000-pound tensile strength and up to 850% elongation. They come in many forms for different events. High jumpers attach one end of the cable to the bottom of a pole, the other end to a foot and wing the leg forward, simulating the move made in their event. "In this exercise you become familiar with raising your center of gravity from a low point to a high point," says Perrin. "If you lift your center of gravity faster than anyone else and over a greater distance, you're going to go higher than anyone else."

Perrin also believes in psychology. For the sensitive Matzdorf, who is often down on himself, he has provided an elevated board off which to practice. A couple of 7'8" leaps can do wonders for one's confidence.

Undoubtedly, Perrin's best move was leaving Matzdorf to the bent-knee approach he developed in high school in Sheboygan, Wis., his hometown. The straight-leg straddle, in which the lead leg remains taut, is more common, as most coaches believe it generates greater force than any other method. But Perrin saw in the bent-knee a chance to speed up the approach (only Brumel's phenomenal strength enabled him to run at the bar using the straight leg), lower the center of gravity for a fast takeoff and generate velocity with a powerful arm thrust. In truth, the bent-knee approach is not as revolutionary as it sounds—the Fosbury Flop is a backward bent-knee jump—but it has not been widely used until recently.

As a sophomore, Matzdorf was the most successful jumper in Big Ten history, but his personal best was only 7'1�". Then, in a four-month period in his junior year he began winning with almost Brumel-like consistency. Last March 6 he set a Big Ten record of 7'3" in the conference indoor meet. A week later he won the NCAA indoors with a meet mark of 7'2". In April he won the Drake Relays at 7'1�", in May a dual meet with Minnesota at 7'2" and in June the Big Ten outdoor meet at 7'1". He fell victim to the fewer-misses rule at the NCAA outdoors, clearing seven feet but finishing fifth because of a miss on a previous jump. A week later, however, he jumped 7'2" to place second to Brown in the AAUs.

At the U.S.- U.S.S.R.-World All-Stars meet Matzdorf felt "a surge of energy, a thrust I've never felt before." He broke the record on his 11th jump. Matzdorf passed three times until the bar reached 6'8�", which he cleared on his first try. He also cleared his first attempts at 6'10�" and 7'�". He missed once at 7'1�" but made his second jump, and went over on his first try at 7'3".

With the bar set at 7'4�", Dick Fosbury's American record, only Brown and Matzdorf were left in the field. Brown missed three times. Matzdorf sailed over on his second attempt and bounded joyously out of the pit. "What should I go for?" he asked Heikkila, a spectator at the meet.

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