Olympian Matt Hemingway ready for gold, but not at all costs

ATHENS (BP)--As a high school athlete, Matt Hemingway made it abundantly clear that he was serious about Christianity.

His high school’s teams in Buena Vista, Colo., were named the Demons, and Hemingway refused to wear the word “Demons” on his uniform. His stance was so adamant that the track coach ordered uniforms with only the school name on them.

At the Olympics in Athens, Hemingway won’t have to worry about satanic references on his uniform and will gladly don “USA” instead. But the high jumper, who begins his competition Aug. 20, is still concerned about living a life of faithfulness to God, especially in a setting as visible as the Olympic Games.

“It’s been a long journey to get to this point,” Hemingway said in an interview with Baptist Press. “I’m going to go over there and I’m going to enjoy it. I totally believe that this business of jumping is totally a gift.”

Hemingway can relate to Eric Liddell, the famed British runner in the 1924 Olympics depicted in the movie “Chariots of Fire.” Liddell acknowledged that God made him fast, and that when he ran he could feel God’s pleasure.

“That’s kind of how I am about jumping in a lot of ways,” Hemingway said. “I can’t think through a good way to describe it. To me, it’s about the jumping, and this is a great stage to do it on.”

Hemingway almost missed the performance. A standout athlete at the University of Arkansas, he was the first alternate in the high jump on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. But after that, Hemingway’s career as a jumper went downhill quickly.

“I’m a workaholic by nature,” Hemingway said. “When you combine that with a high-pressure program like Arkansas was, I was exhausted –- mentally, physically, spiritually.”

He lost the will and the drive to be a world-class high jumper, and by his own admission he hated the sport. He decided to walk away, and he didn’t jump at all in 1998 and 1999.

Other pursuits occupied Hemingway’s life for two years. He got married and worked as a whitewater raft guide in Colorado. Only gradually did Hemingway come back to the sport, and even then he did it more as a hobby.

He only had one problem -– just a few months after he began jumping again, he had the highest jump in the world in 2000. He suddenly had a renewed interest in returning to the sport.

“God kind of brought me back to it,” Hemingway said.

Despite winning the U.S. indoor title in 2000, Hemingway didn’t have such a strong showing at the 2000 Olympic trials, and he didn’t make the team.

He continued working fulltime, and he continued jumping. He was the runner-up at both the 2002 and 2003 U.S. outdoor competitions. At this year’s Olympic trials, his effort paid off. He finished second at the trials with a jump of 7 feet, 6.5 inches to earn a spot on the Olympic team.

As a Christian athlete, Hemingway tries to be an example and a model to those with whom he associates by living a life consistent with the faith he professes. As he prepares for his Olympic competition, Hemingway has mixed feelings about any success he might achieve.

In one way, Hemingway would “be thrilled out of my head” with a gold medal performance, and such a showing would undoubtedly open doors for him to do some speaking -– an opportunity he would welcome.

But Hemingway also knows the pitfalls of success, because he’s seen the effects many times.

“I’ve seen fame ruin so many people, and I’ve seen people drop the things that they proclaimed that they stood for out of convenience,” Hemingway said. “I value my marriage. I love my wife [Kate] so much. I know there are tons of people who have gone into that limelight afterwards, and what was their first priority ended up dead last and in the trash. I’ll shut down from the world before I let that happen to my marriage.”

That’s why Hemingway wants to stay focused strictly on the jumping and not worry about any success or failure. His life doesn’t revolve around track and field, and he wants to continue to live for God’s glory regardless of the outcome in Athens.

“To me it’s always been about the jumping,” he said. “As long as I jump what I’m capable of jumping, I’ll be happy. A gold medal’s great, the Olympics are fantastic, but they’re not the end of the world. And they’re not the beginning of it either.”

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