Milan Tiff trains at 9 o'clock every morning at the UCLA track in Westwood. Regulars at that hour include former professional football player Bernie Casey (actor, poet and, like Tiff, painter), pentathlete Jane Frederick and comedian Jimmie Walker. No matter how hot the day, Tiff wears two pairs of sweats and keeps the pants on, hiding his thin calves. Until recently, he always taped his ankles. "The doctors used to tell me to stop jumping because my bones were grinding together," he says. "They warned that one day I'd jump and my bones would shatter. I used to tape my ankles just in case they did, so the pieces wouldn't fall all over the place. I wanted to have all my pieces to take to the hospital."
As Tiff goes through his routine of stretching and striding and bounding down the runway, he keeps up a nonstop monologue. He's a born performer, intensely aware of playing to an audience. He takes delight in tossing off conversational tidbits he knows will shock, and then waits to see the effect. Typical Tiff: "My dog, Egypt, is part deer." (Egypt, it must be noted, looks like an ordinary dog.) "I never eat meat, but I get 10 times more protein by painting blue than you can by eating 1,000 steaks a day." He would like officials to throw away the tape measure in triple jump. "Triple jumping is an art form; it's like ballet. If my jump pleases the eye, it must be a long one."
By 11 a.m. Tiff finishes his workout. As he slowly gets ready to leave (the seemingly simple act of changing his shoes can take up to an hour), he regales those near him with stories. One involves his preseason workouts. Unlike most triple jumpers, Tiff eschews weight training and sprint drills. "They're a waste of time," he says. Instead, he sharpens up by running in the Sierra foothills with wild animals. It all started a few years ago in San Joaquin Valley. "I was running in the mountains one time, just chugging along on a path," he says. "Suddenly this deer crossed in front of me. I looked at its anatomy and structure and strength and thought how magnificent the deer was. So I decided to chase it. The deer could sense that I wasn't a hunter. It stayed on the path instead of cutting off into the bush. It was like the deer could communicate with me. I was actually running with it, testing my speed against his. I said, 'I'm going to catch this deer,' and I shifted gears and went into top speed. The deer could feel me shifting gears. Then I saw the deer change from running on all four legs to two legs at a time. He pushed off with the back legs, reached out with the front ones and pulled his back legs through his front legs. Suddenly he'd put a mile between us. Right there I learned that if I push and pull on each stride rather than run, I go faster. So I go up there every year and run with the deer."
When Tiff really gets revved up, he's fond of telling what happened early one morning when he wandered into a restaurant while still a student at UCLA. "Some of my friends were there, and they started asking me about triple jumping," he says. "At 2 a.m. there weren't many people in the restaurant, so few that everybody could get in the same conversation. Pretty soon my friends were introducing me as the world's greatest triple jumper to the cooks, the waitresses and the drunks—the night people who tune out in restaurants. Everyone was asking what the triple jump was. I said, 'It's the hop, step and jump.' 'What's that?' they asked. I got up from the table and started taking tiny triple jumps of about 10 feet to show them. They said, 'We've got to see a larger version.' So I enlarged my jump to 20 feet. Meanwhile, a few more people came in and saw me bounding across the restaurant, and they got scared because they thought I was a robber. But the drunks said, 'Come in. This is the world's greatest triple jumper. We're getting a live demonstration.' By now everybody in that restaurant was my audience. I decided to take the show outside.
"I said, 'If you can come up with $50, I'll triple-jump right across the street.' They said the street must be 100 feet wide. I could see it was only 50. They went into the cash register and got $50. I said, 'Keep your money. If I jump across the street, all I want is for you to tell me how I did it.' We went outside and I backed way up on the sidewalk. Traffic had come to a dead stop. I ran down, and when I hit the edge of the sidewalk I took off. I went clear over the street. I was so hyped up I think I broke the world's record that night.
"The people went nuts. Then we went back inside the restaurant. By now the drunks had sobered up. Everybody wanted to be my coach from that night on. They were saying, 'You were good, but with some work you could be great.' So I said, 'I want everybody to be serious and tell me how I did it.' Silence. Then after a while, one of the drunks from the back of the restaurant got up and said, 'You call it the triple jump, but we saw what you really do. You fly.' "