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Original Issue


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

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 7'6¼"—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 7'5¾", 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 7'1¾". 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 7'1¾", 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 6'8¾", which he cleared on his first try. He also cleared his first attempts at 6'10¾" and 7'¾". He missed once at 7'1¾" but made his second jump, and went over on his first try at 7'3".

With the bar set at 7'4½", 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.

"You might as well go for it—7'6"," Heikkila said. The meet was being conducted on the metric system, so the bar was set at 2.29 meters (Brumel's mark was 2.28), which rounds off to 7'6¼".

On his first two jumps, Matzdorf nicked the bar, knocking it off. Heikkila told him he was holding back too long before lifting his trail leg. Then, jumping quickly as he always does—it was his third attempt in less than two minutes—he brushed the bar with his lead leg but had enough arm action to carry the trail leg over. Matzdorf sat up straight on the foam-rubber cushion, his mouth agape at the realization that the trembling bar was not going to topple. Then he closed his eyes and fell backward. Before he could make one enervated, unsuccessful try at 7'7¼", the press crowded about him, and Pat Matzdorf was formally—and belatedly—introduced to the world, which took little note, nor long remembered.

Despite his feat, track and field nuts have by no means conceded Matzdorf a gold medal at Munich. As of Jan. 13, Valentin Gavrilov of Russia had cleared TV or better on 30 occasions, as had Brown; Matzdorf had only done it 12 times. Heikkila, Kestutis Sapka of Russia and Istvan Major of Hungary are other serious threats. Unfortunately, the jumper Matzdorf would most like to face, Ni Chih-chin of the People's Republic of China, will not participate because China has so far refused to join either the International Olympic Committee or the International Amateur Athletic Federation. Ni, who was born on the same day as Brumel, April 14, 1942, has reportedly jumped 7'1" or better on 26 occasions, 19 of those 7'3" or better, and has unofficially equaled Matzdorf's world mark (although Matzdorf can lay claim to having jumped higher—7'6‚Öú"—before the conversion to the next lowest metrical equivalent, as required by IAAF rules). According to The Peking Review, Ni trains whispering the thoughts of Chairman Mao and when he made his 7'6¼", 80,000 spectators chanted, "Be resolute, fear no sacrifice and surmount every difficulty to win victory."

For the time being, Matzdorf will need all this to contend with his critics. "He will have to show that he can come back and jump 7'4" or 7'5" again," says one. "If he can't do it, he may be one of those once-in-a-lifetime jumpers."

Matzdorf is aware of the criticism. Perhaps that is why the jump he is proudest of occurred two weeks after Berkeley, a 7'4" off a poor surface at the Afro Games in Durham, N.C. The jump silenced some of his critics, not the least of them Pat Matzdorf. But his work is cut out for him. In Baltimore's National Invitational, the first major meet of the 1972 indoor season, Matzdorf cleared 7'1" for the 13th time, but his jump was only good enough for second as Brown did 7'4", best ever indoors by an American.

Hopefully, the interest that Matzdorf has renewed in the high jump will not take the form of immaterial quibbling over the relative merits of the bent-knee, straddle and other styles. Matzdorf has the sheer grace of an Earl Monroe or a Gale Sayers—two of his favorite athletes—and if he accomplishes nothing else it should be to remind the world that the high jump offers much in the way of beauty.

Consider its esthetics: the dramatic crescendo of the approach, the furious surge of the takeoff, the sudden grace of the flight, the mortality of the fall. At its best, the high jump achieves the poetic scale it deserves. It is, after all, man's best attempt to defy gravity without artificial assistance.

"There's something about the purity of the jump that I like," says John Do-broth, a law clerk with a personal best of 7'2‚Öù", who is one of the event's foremost theoreticians. "The slightest hesitation, the slightest doubt that you can do it overcomes your physical ability. The high jump requires a special kind of skill. If you are jumping at 6'8", you don't want to jump 7'2". Unless you're very strong, like Matzdorf or Brumel, the extra effort is wasted. On the other hand, in one sense you never win. Every time a record is set, a jumper keeps going until he misses."

The beauty of the event is an attraction even to those jumpers who cannot articulate it. Brumel could have taken up any event. He chose the high jump because, as he wrote later, "It seemed the most graceful." Matzdorf says, "When you're really jumping, there's something beautiful involved. Instead of just running, it's kind of like floating through the air. It's a good feeling."

Myths have always seemed to haunt the jump. Isn't spring all that is required? Fosbury had the worst vertical jump on his high school basketball team. "The important thing is how much lateral speed you can convert to vertical distance," says Dobroth. "It's an application of force over time."

Isn't the jump easy? Pat Dobson, who won eight straight for the Orioles last July, was exasperated when he lost a "Life Saver of the Month" award to Matzdorf. "The kid leaves the earth for half a second," said Dobson, "and he gets the nod over 'The Snake,' who was out there driving a tack every fourth day." What Dobson ignored was Matzdorf's year-round routine of running, weights and hopping up stadium steps.

Patrick Clifford Matzdorf and his pretty August bride, the former Peggy Fiedler, live in a two-story apartment building four miles from downtown Madison. That way, says Matzdorf, if a riot starts on the volatile Wisconsin campus, the Matzdorfs won't be there to smell the gas, as Pat once did. By isolating himself, Matzdorf may also miss out on the advantages of the sweet-smelling capital city of lakes and parks, but it is a price he is willing to pay.

"Pat is naive and young and very nice," says Dobroth. Track and field officialdom agrees. It is touting Pat as an athlete who is loyal, brave, trustworthy, bold, true and, above all, one who won't use his athletic prowess to trumpet radical social views. At Wisconsin, where one must pass under a bar set a 7'6¼"—on the very standards used in Berkeley—to enter the field house, Bill Perrin says, "I've told the alumni that if I had to pick a perfect representative for the university, Pat would be it."

Such characterizations make Matzdorf frown. "First of all, I don't know much about politics," he says in his quiet, almost hushed voice. "I can't talk much about it. But when you hear people talk about other guys, you know, like Bill Skinner, who wears a mustache, and they think those guys don't deserve to represent the U.S., I can't see why."

The Matzdorfs spend most of their free time in their one-bedroom apartment. They have no friends in the building, and avoid the fraternity scene. Matzdorf's two major interests, he says, are TV and sports. Matzdorf's day begins at 7:10 a.m., when he drives Peggy to The Madison Newspapers, where she works in the circulation department. He has a heavy class schedule, including five consecutive hours on Monday and Wednesday. "I had to cut a class when the bed came," he says. When he entered Wisconsin he was advised to major in physical education, take 12 hours of courses a week and graduate in five years. Instead he majors in math, averages 15 hours and will graduate after four years this June. He has carried a 3.2 (B-plus) average since high school. It is perhaps indicative of his approach that he enjoys the lectures of a history of science professor who is substantively sound if not the spellbinder so much in vogue.

Between lunch and Peggy's 4:30 quitting time, Matzdorf practices. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (except before meets) he works on power drills. On Tuesdays and Thursdays he trains less strenuously. He may warm up by walking on his hands, doing short sprints or loping up to the football crossbar from the left side and touching it with his right elbow. In the highlight of the workout, he hops up 20 stadium benches two at a time on one foot, switches to the other foot, and then clears three benches at a time on two feet. He is the ideal size for a high jumper at 6'3", 175, and his legs are so long he has trouble finding pants that fit in Sheboygan. His countenance is evidently remarkable, too. A Cal coed embraced him after the record jump. "You have the face of a madonna," she said.

His Wisconsin teammates see their captain somewhat differently—they consider him decathlon material. "He could pick up a Frisbee and throw it the length of the field—and be accurate," says Mark Winzenried, last year's track captain. Matzdorf once picked up a football in front of some Badger coaches and kicked it 60 yards. They promptly suited him up for a game, but he didn't play and decided that football would take too much time from his jumping.

Matzdorfs image as the Home Town Boy Made Good is buttressed by his association with Sheboygan, a place best known for bratwurst, slow-pitch softball and the song that begins, "Mention my name in Sheboygan, it's the greatest little town in the world." Indeed, the attributes Matzdorf developed there—self-reliance, discipline, perseverance, modesty—are the classical gifts of a small town putting its best foot forward. Sheboygan has reciprocated by marking all the lampposts on its main street with red stripes 7'6¼" above the sidewalk.

Matzdorfs paternal grandfather, a German immigrant, developed pneumonia while laboring in factory drafts and spent the rest of his working days driving spikes into railroad beds. His father Richard, who is a wiry 5'7", often outworks the two assistants who help him haul debris to the city dump. "He always says, 'Do what you can and don't expect to be paid for it,' " says his wife Gertrude, who speaks a dialect called Sheboygan English, i.e., Mutzdorf.

The Matzdorfs are at once stern and permissive parents. If, when they were children, LeRoy, 31, who works in a factory, or Richard Jr., 32, a purchasing agent, came home from school with complaints, they would be asked, "What did you do wrong?" Yet the Matzdorfs had no complaints when their sons married non-Lutherans, and they kid Pat about his mustache, which they do not like. "He's over 21, and he can do what he wants," says his father.

Pat was rarely a discipline problem. "Ah, he was easy to please," Mrs. Matzdorf said the other day. "He even went visiting with us." "We told him to behave at the table," said Mr. Matzdorf. "What else can you do?"

Pat's in-laws are less reserved. Carl Fiedler, the city editor of The Sheboygan Press, put out a dummy front page the day Pat and Peggy were married, MATZDORF FALLS! read the banner headline. The story noted that "vows were exchanged after Matzdorf narrowly missed in his attempt to scale the Grace Church rood screen (10'8")."

Something of a loner as a youngster, Pat would take his Boston terrier sledding with him and shovel snow off an outdoor basketball court to practice his shots. He spent so much time throwing a baseball off the side wall of a Red Owl store that the manager finally came out to complain. While a student at a Lutheran grade school, he drifted over to the local YMCA and won its pool and free-throw tournaments. Until he learned the value of thrift, he would ask his father for money to play the games at bratwurst carnivals. "Always doing something, he was," says his mother. Even today Matzdorf says he doesn't read much because "I can't stand still."

He was somewhat reluctant to play team sports, however. He found junior-high football involved too much waiting around. He had to be prodded to try out for basketball in high school, and his track coach, Marv Peterson, had to urge him to come out and jump.

But Matzdorf excelled under conditions of greatest stress. As a forward in basketball he had his best game (33 points) against the state champions and a rival coach called him the finest college prospect in the state. As a high jumper he always seemed to peak for the most important indoor meet, drop down early in the spring and peak for the late outdoor meets. His 6'11" jump in the state meet his senior year set a Wisconsin record, although his most impressive jump may have been one of 6'10¾" on the asphalt parking lot which served as Sheboygan North's makeshift facility.

Matzdorf has no idea where the future will lead him other than to Munich. His lottery number of 173 should enable him to miss the draft, but picking a career leaves him perplexed. "I'm sure there'll be many wonderful opportunities for him," says Winzenried, a close friend. "I have more confidence in him than anyone. The only thing he has to get over is his shyness."

As he brought Peggy to New York for What's My Line? and half a dozen other appearances, Matzdorf was prepared to speak frankly about himself and his hangups. He was rarely given a chance. One radio interviewer told his listeners, "It's difficult to put ourselves inside the heart and mind and body of a high jumper." Matzdorf was asked most frequently, "What did you think when you went over the bar?" and most absurdly, "How do you do it?" In the swarm of Madison Avenue sycophants he was embarrassed to say his father drives a truck for the city of Sheboygan. Had he not been so polite he might have told even those who proclaimed him superstar to treat him merely as an athlete who had jumped 7'6¼". He expects that a number of people will break his record. "I hope," says Pat Matzdorf, "to be one of them."