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Waves of heat rise from the parched foothills behind the stadium. Down on the field, the athletes lie in varying angles of repose, many with their sweat clothes off, awaiting the start of the Mount San Antonio College Relays in the small Southern California town of Walnut. As the sprinters begin casual stretching and the shotputters leisurely flex their muscles, a group of lonely-looking, long-legged, thin-waisted young men are beginning to compete in perhaps the oddest of all field events—the triple jump. One by one the jumpers dash down the runway, spring from the takeoff board and strain their bodies skyward, and come to earth with a loud thwack. They take off again, land again, thwack, and finally hurl themselves into the landing pit. Each athlete resembles an ignorant ostrich attempting to fly.
In this group is 29-year-old Milan Tiff, who for the better part of a decade has been one of America's top triple jumpers. Tiff leads the field after the qualifying round. But in the finals he fouls on his first jump and produces a middling effort on his second. Before his third and final try he strips off his sweats, revealing two sorry-looking legs, and walks to the head of the runway. Suddenly he is churning forward, knees reaching for his chest, gasping audibly. And then he goes into his routine. At each of the three takeoffs his arms shoot up and forward like wings; an instant before each landing they are thrust behind as in the breaststroke. Tiffs jump is announced as 56'1¼", the day's winner by almost a foot.
As he picks up his trophy Tiff turns to an acquaintance and announces, "This plaque is nice to get, but I don't care about winning. I compete for exercise and the fun of it. I find the movements exhilarating." From anyone else this disclaimer would sound like so much pious nonsense. Not from Tiff. The fact is, he could barely walk until he was eight, and not normally until he was almost 13. "I don't get upset over losses," he says. "I'm happy just to be walking."
As a child Tiff contracted what was probably polio (it was never positively diagnosed) and spent his first seven years stumbling around his parents' house in the posh Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. Even now his calves are only partially filled out, and this causes him embarrassment. "I don't like to take my pants off," he says. "Every time I do, people stare at me and feel sorry. My legs don't look right."
Unable to perform normal physical acts while a child, Tiff began to re-create them in art. He spent hours each day drawing human beings standing correctly, well-muscled galloping horses, or splendid birds in flight. At age 10 he made his first sale, a da Vinci-style sketch of the hind legs of a deer running. That led to a career in painting. Today Tiff supports himself as an artist, charging up to $3,500 for a painting.
But drawing robust animals was not enough. Tiff put mirrors on all four walls of his room and stared endlessly at himself from all angles. Instead of seeing a scrawny, malformed child, Tiff visualized himself as high jumper John Thomas or sprinter Frank Budd. Mostly, he imagined himself as Jesse Owens, who had run on the same sprint relay team as his father, Benjamin, years before at East Technical High School in Cleveland. "I'd just stand in front of those mirrors, trying to find an answer," he says. "As an artist I could duplicate any image put in front of me. I was trying to do that to myself, to make myself stand and walk like everybody else. I'd do exercises all day long, like trying to touch my toes. I said to myself, 'One day you'll be the best at touching your toes, and then you'll show that to everybody.' "
While Tiff had trouble putting two normal steps together, in his imagination he was already performing astonishing athletic feats. He fancied himself a superhuman hopscotch player. "The kids would draw a hopscotch diagram in dimensions they could deal with, depending on their size," he says. "They'd throw the sandbag and jump from one small square to the next. All I could do was dream about jumping and running. So I'd go onto the street and draw my own hopscotch squares. They'd say, 'Your squares are too big. We can't jump from one to another.' I'd say, 'What are you talking about? I can.' And my squares got bigger and bigger, until they were as big as the street. That was the perspective I wanted to play in."
After his eighth birthday, something marvelous began to happen to Milan Tiff. His legs started to develop. By the time he was 13, they had straightened out. Tiff recalls the triumph of sailing clear outside the pit in a ninth-grade long-jump test. He first took up the triple jump in the summer of 1967. Within a year, as an 18-year-old senior at Shaker Heights High School, he uncorked a jump of 49'11 "—at the time the third-longest triple jump in high school history.
Tiffs physical turnaround surprised his father as much as anyone. "He was so skinny I didn't pay much attention to him athletically," Benjamin says. "All of a sudden he just blossomed." Tiff went on to win an NCAA indoor triple-jump title in 1970 while enrolled at Miami of Ohio, and two years later he transferred to UCLA, where in 1973 he won the NCAA outdoor crown. He has also won three AAU titles (indoor and outdoor), his finest moment coming in 1977 when he leapt 57'¼". It would have been an American record had it not been wind-assisted.
Despite these feats, Tiff may be the least-known track and field star in the U.S. The reason is obvious: he's a triple jumper. Compared to its big brother, the long jump, the triple has long been the orphan of American field events. It was not even included in the NCAA championship meet on a continuous basis until 1959. American interest in the event has been so halfhearted that the last time a U.S. citizen won an Olympic gold medal in the triple jump was 1904, when one Myer Prinstein jumped 47'1". Before James Butts took the silver in Montreal, an American hadn't won a medal in the triple jump since 1928. The current record of 58'8¼" was set by João Oliveira of Brazil in 1975. Viktor Saneyev of the Soviet Union has won the Olympic gold medal the last three Games in a row.