​Matt Hemingway on the Price to Be Great

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Matt Hemingway won the 2004 Olympic Silver medal in the HJ after quitting the sport twice. Contributed Photo.

Matt Hemingway grew up in the small mountain town of Buena Vista, Colorado. In high school he ran cross country, played basketball and competed in track and field. Matt excelled in high jump his senior year and went on to break the Colorado high school high jump record at 7'4", which still stands today.

In college, Matt chose a partial scholarship in order to compete and train with some of the best track and field athletes in the world at the University of Arkansas. Matt had a successful career at Arkansas but chose to walk away from the sport after college in 1997. Three years later, he picked the shoes to enjoy the sport that he had loved so much.

Thankfully, he didn't give up on his freakish elastic power gene. At the relative old age of 31, he won an Olympic Silver Medal in 2004 leaping 2.34 meters (7' 8.126"). Describing it as his “deliberate decision to become become an accidental Olympian," Matt's path to the Athens podium was certainly not traditional. He credits his faith, hard work, family, coaches and mentors for getting him to the top of the world, pun intended. Currently, the U.S. Indoor record high jumper works as the Vice President of Sales for Tollfreeforwarding.com in Southern California. Milesplit Arizona is very grateful Matt took some time out of his busy schedule to chat with us about how to be great.

(Editor's note: For the curious nerds like myself, yes, Matt Hemingway is in fact related to Ernest Hemingway. His grandfather was a cousin of the famous writer.)

Arizona Milesplit: Buena Vista High School is small and certainly didn't have the facilities of bigger schools, how did that affect you?

Matt Hemingway: (Jokingly) They didn't have much in the way of facilities.

At some level it helped, because it made me feel like it was me against the world. I had a great support system there. Dan Crist, the track coach, had been my elementary PE teacher. I just thought there was no sense in griping about what I didn't have. Whenever I went to someplace that there was good stuff, I knew I was going to do awesome, since I was used to doing without. I didn't even have high jump spikes until my junior year of high school. You just have to deal with adversity. Everyone has some excuse. Dick Fosbury jumped into a pile of sawdust. Excuses are just a lack of will or a cop out. People should get a better perspective. I have an adopted daughter from Ethiopia. We went to Ethiopia when we adopted her and I can attest that the people of Ethiopia don't have the advantages that we have in America. Look at Gebreselassie, Bekele, Dibaba the list goes on; those athletes have every disadvantage in the world and they still run fast. You just have to make the most of what you've got and work hard.

AZ MS: You ran cross country and played basketball, how did that affect your high jumping?

Matt: I ran cross country in high school since it helped me stay in shape for basketball. Truth is I wasn't a great basketball player but I loved to jump. The love of basketball followed me after high school and I play to this day.

I even played in a basketball league the year of the Olympics. When I was over there I took an hour and a half bus ride to Crete to shoot hoops on the military base. Basketball was my golf; it helped me relax. You have to realize you are an athlete first, specialist second.

You know some coaches are going to hate me saying this, but maybe it is good to practice high jump with some basketball every once and a while. If someone had told me I was going to hop around on one leg and run sprints around a track all day I would not have been excited to run track. It's a whole lot more glamorous to dunk a basketball.

AZMS: What do you think about kids specializing in one sport at an early age?

Matt: I don't like the early specialization I see in young athletes. I prefer that kids become good overall athletes and then they can specialize later on. They get exposure to multiple skills playing different sports. It helps them develop better.

I think a big problem in youth sports is that many times a parent's identity is wrapped up in their kid's sports career. Kids have to develop other skills and get a break.

If not, your kids are going to end up hating you or not know what to do when that sport ends. My dad played college football and at an early age he saw that I wasn't a football player at heart. He put no pressure on me to follow in his footsteps. He saw that I could jump and run so he encouraged me to do things that were aligned with my gifts. His only rule was not quitting mid season. You gotta stick out the season and then re-evaluate. At the end of the day it was my choice.

AZMS: You quit the sport twice because of burnout, how do you think athletes should go about avoiding that?

Matt: I am incredibly focused when I need to be, which is absolutely fantastic in the right moment, but I let it consume me without getting proper perspective. My wife Kate didn't care that I could jump over really tall things. She didn't care that ESPN came to my work. She was like “you have socks to pick up and we have a life to live." There can be an unhealthy cycle when your value as a person gets wrapped up in your sport. You need friends and mentors to call you out. That applies both when you aren't doing enough and when you are doing too much.

You know what? Have fun in high school. Try a new event. Fall on your face. Winning is not the most important thing. If you tell a high school kid winning is everything you are absolutely psycho. Track will end. It will end for everyone. It can't be your life. Do your best but learn to laugh and have fun along the way.

AZMS: Training for the Olympics in 2004 you had a very regimented lifestyle, what was your secret to your time management?

Matt: My wife and I talked about it being one last shot. I got a contract job specifically so I could train. I knew that the Olympics were going to be it no matter what. There was no other opportunity because I was almost 32 when the Athens games came around. I think when someone gets to a point in their life when they know there isn't going to be another chance they figure out what their priorities are. My dad used to tell me, “It's either motor or its luggage." I just had to sit down and think about my objective. Training, paying bills, earning money for my family, sleeping. I focused on my goals. I missed social events and many other things. A lot of my friends understood. Some of my friends knew what it was like to train and some didn't, but they all thought it was cool. It wasn't like I was out there training for a fun run missing a social get together. I was training for the Olympics. When I explained how I had a legitimate shot to make the team, people respected it.

AZMS: What lessons did you learn from balancing work and sport leading up to Athens?

Matt: We are an instant gratification culture. We want it all this second. My college track coach said you can have just a couple priorities in your life. Mine was my faith, my work, my family and my training. When I was training if you weren't on that list you didn't get much of my time. People want all these things, but they don't want to sacrifice to get them. In college I would do drills, like A-skip, with a weight vest on the half mile walk to school. Maybe I was a little bit extreme, but Michael Jordan did free throws. You can't do it all, you have to choose what you do. You have to choose your priorities and work hard for them. Just being physically talented won't get you there.

AZMS: You seemed to jump better when you were training on your own, why was that?

Matt: Part of it is that I am a bit of a lone ranger. My closest neighbor growing up was a mile away, so I had hours and hours of alone time. I had the privilege of training with great people at Arkansas. There was too much pressure there, most of which I put on myself. Our team was really good, really really good. I was only the second high jumper on the team. We didn't lose an NCAA Championship from my freshman through junior seasons. It was intense, we had so much talent. I don't believe another team will be assembled with that much talent on it in my lifetime.

When it came to training on my own it just seemed to work. Having said that I don't think my training would have been very effective if it wasn't for my time at Arkansas and the guidance of a few other coaches I trained with from time to time. Training was a release from my day job where I was working up to 65 hours a week. Training and High jumping is like a piece of art for me. The perfect jump just feels amazing; It was my thing. I don't mean to sound preachy, but there is a section in Chariots of Fire where Eric Liddell says, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure." When I jumped high, I knew I was doing what I was made to do. As long as I was doing that, it didn't matter who I was or wasn't training with.

AZMS: You went from 2nd at Arkansas to 2nd in the world, how were you able to do that?

Matt: Success has a price. To be good you can do what you want and that's awesome. To be great, to be amazing, you have to work hard. I'm not the most talented athlete out there. I was willing to work harder than most and I was committed. I would encourage athletes to ask are they working as hard and as smart as they can. A lot of super talent goes unseen at the higher levels because an athlete doesn't develop the work habits to maximize their gifts. Eventually less talented athletes who know how to dust themselves off will pass them up. That mentality of working hard will carry you through the rest of life. I have hired, and fired a lot of people that only know how to do what comes easy to them. If you are only willing to push yourself hard enough to win, not to your maximum ability, your success will always be determined by someone else.