Pat Matzdorf’s Surprise World Record Turns 50

Pat Matzdorf earned the cover of T&FN after he highlighted the July 4th weekend of 1971 with a surprise 7-6¼ clearance. (JEFF KROOT)

FOR A SPLIT SECOND, laying on his back in the high jump pit, watching the bar wobble above him, Pat Matzdorf didn’t know what to think.

Actually, it was more than a split second. More like 50 years.

But the 22,000 spectators attending the ’71 US–USSR–World All-Stars meet had no such reservations. The crowd that filled Edwards Stadium on the University of California campus roared loud enough to be heard in the Berkeley Hills, their lungs imploring the crossbar not to drop.

It stayed put at 7 feet, 6¼ inches (2.29), giving the 21-year-old math major from the University of Wisconsin one of the most prestigious — and unexpected — World Records in track & field.

In the immediate aftermath, and in the 50 years since, Matzdorf found himself wishing that the bar had joined him in the pit. He spent the rest of his jumping days trying unsuccessfully to recapture the magic of July 03, 1971.

“I did something I wasn’t supposed to do,” Matzdorf, 71, says from his home in Naperville, Illinois. “In retrospect, I wish I had just set the American Record and taken some good attempts at the World Record without making any of them. It would have kept me more grounded.”

The atmosphere surrounding the annual competition between capitalist and communist track superpowers was hardly grounded during the Cold War. The United States and the Soviet Union brought their competing systems to the track with the inaugural ’58 competition in Moscow, highlighted by Rafer Johnson’s WR in the decathlon against Soviet rival Vasiliy Kuznetsov. Johnson’s victory earned him Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman Of The Year.

Four years later, 150,000 spectators attended the 2-day meet at Stanford Stadium across San Francisco Bay from Berkeley. The highlight of the now-legendary ’62 meet came when Valeriy Brumel broke his own WR with a jump of 7-5 (2.26).

Brumel, a master of the straddle technique who went on to win Olympic gold in ’64, set 3 of his 6 WRs in USA vs. USSR meets, including his final record of 7-5¾ (2.28) at the ’63 showdown in Moscow. Brumel’s career was cut short in ’65 when he almost lost a leg in a motorcycle accident.

In ’68, Dick Fosbury unveiled his revolutionary “flop” technique at the Mexico City Olympics.

Straddlers such as Matzdorf would soon become an extinct species as the Fosbury Flop proved to be the more efficient technique, but the a full-scale conversion to the new style didn’t take place for several years after Fosbury’s breakthrough.

Just 1 of the 6 jumpers in the Berkeley field was a flopper — Kestutis Sapka, a young Lithuanian competing for the Soviet Union. The other five entrants were straddlers — Matzdorf, U.S. teammate Reynaldo Brown, Valentin Gavrilov, Hidehiko Tomizawa and Lawrie Peckham. Matzdorf employed the “bent leg” straddle technique, meaning he bent his right (non-takeoff) leg rather than keeping it straight as he left the ground.

Matzdorf had qualified for the meet by placing 2nd to Brown at the AAU Championships 7 days earlier. After adding the AAU title to the NCAA crown he had won earlier in June, Brown jetted off to Italy to compete, and U.S. officials didn’t know whether he’d be able to make it back to Berkeley in time.

Brown, a ’68 Olympian at age 17, had beaten the Russians in the ’70 meet in Leningrad and was probably the top high jumper in the world in the early summer ’71.

Tim Heikkila, a Big 10 rival of Matzdorf’s from the University of Minnesota, was told to be ready to take Brown’s place. Heikkila had beaten both Brown and Matzdorf a month earlier in the Kennedy Games at Edwards Stadium.

Brown, meanwhile, received a telegram asking him to fly home, and he arrived minutes before the competition began.

“I was burned out,” Brown recalls. “I didn’t think I was going to jump as high as I did. I was fine with what happened that day.”

A 6-foot-3, 175-pound (1.905/80) native of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Matzdorf was seen on the morning of July 03 as a jumper who lacked Brown’s consistency but had the athleticism to jump higher than 7-2 or 7-3 (c2.20) on the right day.

Matzdorf remembers browsing through the event program the night before his first competition as a member of the U.S. national team. The Cold War intensity of previous U.S.–Soviet meets had dimmed a bit by then, but Matzdorf was thrilled to be a part of such a historic series.

“I was soaking in all the history,” Matzdorf says. “It got me so fired up. Being on a team with all those premier athletes… It was just awesome.”

Matzdorf must have noticed that the men’s high jump received a 2-page spread in the program that included pictures of Brown, Sapka, Gavrilov and Tomizawa. The second American didn’t merit a photo, apparently.

Regardless, after greeting the late-arriving Brown and consoling Heikkila, Matzdorf felt unusually good in warm-ups. He hadn’t bothered shaving that morning, figuring the stubble would make him more aggressive.

“I remember feeling extremely light on my feet,” Matzdorf says. “The early heights, when I cleared them, I thought the measurements must have been off.”

When Matzdorf had an early stumble, missing his first try at 6-8 (2.03), Cal’s Dave Maggard, the head coach of the U.S. team, calmed him down.

You’ve got this, Maggard said. Relax.

“He had so much spring, he didn’t know how to handle it,” says Maggard.

From there it was clear sailing. Matzdorf and Brown assured the U.S. of a 1-2 finish by each clearing 7-3 (2.21), breaking the Stadium Record set by Fosbury in winning the ’68 NCAA title.

The bar went up to a 7-4½ (2.25), a quarter-inch higher than the U.S. Record Fosbury had set 3 years earlier in claiming Olympic gold. Brown nearly made it on his second try, and the officials had barely reset the bar before Matzdorf sprinted in from the left side of the apron toward the bar for his attempt.

When Matzdorf curled over cleanly, Brown was the first to congratulate him.

“Clearing 7-4½ [2.25] wasn’t totally unexpected,” Matzdorf says. “You compete to get personal records. I told myself, ‘If I don’t get one today, I never will.’”

Matzdorf was unsure of what height to try next. Heikkila, who’d been watching the day unfold from the infield after not being able to compete, told his friend he had no choice.

Go for the record.

“Pat was special,” Heikkila said recently from his home in Florida, where he still high jumps in masters meets. “He was very quick, always moving around, like a leopard or a cat. The way he jumped was violent, almost like a windmill in the air.”

The World Record meant 7-6 (2.29), but on a remeasure the bar was discovered to be at 7-6¼.

“I wasn’t sure what height to ask for,” Matzdorf says. “Tim Heikkila said, ‘Hell, go for the World Record.’ My main thought at 7-6 was, I want some good attempts here. I don’t want to look like a fool here.

“My first attempt was decent. On the second try, I came really close. That jump was really satisfying. I wasn’t expecting to make it.”

On his third and final attempt at 7-6¼ (2.29), wishing for another good miss, Matzdorf again wasted no time in preparing. He would have been perfectly happy with another respectable miss, a personal best and an American Record, but the fates had a different ending in mind.

“When I hit my takeoff point and left the ground, I could feel that I was on a different trajectory,” Matzdorf says. “I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m going to look bad.’ It felt a little foreign to me.”

The bar stayed up. The new recordholder had the bar raised to 7-7¼ (2.31) but called it a day after one respectable miss. “I thought I had done enough,” he said at the time.

Edwards Stadium had witnessed the best display of jumping in history, with five entries clearing at least 7-1¾ (2.18). Brumel’s 10-year ownership of the WR was over taken by a shy Wisconsinite.

Matzdorf sprinted the traditional victory lap. “I felt like I could have run a leg on the 4 x 400 relay,” he said.

The 1–2 finish by Matzdorf and Brown helped the U.S. men overcome a first-day deficit to beat the Soviet men in the team scoring, 126–110. The combined men’s and women’s scoring ended in a 186–186 tie.

Steve Prefontaine, the brash young runner from Oregon, broke the American Record in winning the 5000, finishing minutes after Matzdorf’s record. One of the stars of the patchwork World All-Stars delegation was Ugandan John Akii-Bua, whose victory in the 400H presaged his WR, gold medal run the following year at the Munich Olympics.

Four members of Soviet team in Berkeley won Olympic titles in ’72 — sprinter Valeriy Borzov, hammer thrower Anatoliy Bondarchuk, triple jumper Viktor Saneyev, and decathlete Nikolay Avilov.

It was probably the last great duel in the USA-USSR series, which finally ran out of steam in ’85.

“I knew before the meet started that at least one young star would emerge here,” says Maggard, the U.S. coach who became Cal’s athletic director soon afterward. “But no one could predict that Matzdorf would come up like that.”

When LeRoy Matzdorf, Pat’s older brother, heard that a WR had been set in Berkeley, he automatically assumed that Brown had been the jumper who did it.

Matzdorf first graced the cover of T&FN after he equaled the American & Collegiate Indoor Records with his 7-3 at the Big 10 earlier in ’71. (BILL MEYER)

Similarly, 400M (c650km) south of Berkeley, the newly minted California State HS champion was headed to the beach the next morning when his girlfriend asked if he’d heard about the record up north.

“It had to be Rey Brown, right?” Dwight Stones said.

“No, that wasn’t the name,” his girlfriend replied.

“The other guy on the team was Pat Matzdorf,” Stones said. “It couldn’t have been that guy. His best is 7-3 [2.21], and he only did it once.”

“Yeah, that’s the guy,” she responded.

“I was pissed,” Stones said recently, recalling the news. “I wanted to be the one who broke Brumel’s record, because he was my hero.”

He continued, “Pat caught lightning in a bottle. There was that whole Cold War mentality surrounding those meets, and he absorbed it. He was in a different zone that day. He did what he did. It was on television. It’s not like he did it in a dual meet in Sheboygan.”

Stones wound up being the one who broke Matzdorf’s record, flopping over 7-6½ (2.30) in ’73 for the first of his three outdoor WRs. The current record is 8-½ (2.45), set by Javier Sotomayor of Cuba, another flopper, way back in ’93. There won’t be a straddler within five time zones of Tokyo at the upcoming Olympics.

Matzdorf didn’t come back to earth immediately after his record jump. He cleared 7-4 (2.235) the following week in a dual meet against Africa before wrapping up his season with a victory at the Pan-Am Games in Cali, Colombia. L’Équipe, the respected French sports publication, named Matzdorf the world track & field athlete of the year, perhaps as much out of reverence for Brumel as for the breadth of Matzdorf’s accomplishments.

The good times continued through the fall for Matzdorf. He married his fiancée, Peggy, who joined him in a parade Sheboygan threw for its homegrown recordholder. City officials installed cardboard banners around Sheboygan that measured 7-6¼, in Matzdorf’s honor.

He was invited to appear on the television show What’s My Line? Soupy Sales guessed Matzdorf’s avocation on his second try.

Decades later, Matzdorf laughs when asked about the television appearance.

“Was it What’s My Line? or To Tell the Truth? I honestly can’t remember,” he says.

Matzdorf says he didn’t really feel the weight of the WR until the following season, which happened to be an Olympic year. In an article that ran in T&FN in late ’71, his coach at Wisconsin, Bill Perrin, made a prescient comment about his prize pupil.

“He has the valleys and peaks of other athletes, but it almost seems he drops lower and soars higher than most, and this has been his history,” Perrin said.

The entire ’72 season would be valley.

“It was a frustrating year,” Matzdorf says. “I remember jumping mediocre, 7-feet, 7-1 [c2.15]. It wasn’t mediocre, but from the World Record holder, you expect great performances. The record was a burden.”

He suffered a freakish injury when his spikes caught on the apron at the Big 10 Championships, opening a gash on his right heel. He had to miss the NCAA outdoor.

At the ’72 OT Matzdorf finished a non-qualifying 5th with a jump of 7-½ (2.15). Stones, 18, won with a leap of 7-3 (2.21) and wound up winning the first of consecutive Olympic bronze medals.

“I probably pressed too much,” Matzdorf says. “It was extremely frustrating and disappointing. I felt like I had let a lot of people down. My parents had already booked their tickets for Munich. They were going to the Olympics and I was staying home.”

He continued competing for another four years, culminating with a failure to even reach the final at the ’76 OT. In a fascinating twist to a most unusual career, Matzdorf had switched to the flop in ’74 and wound up clearing 7-4½.

Matzdorf obtained a master’s in Computer Science and worked in the telecommunications business, settling in Naperville, just outside of Chicago. During a stint with AT&T, Matzdorf was part of a team that developed the first cellular phone system.

“It was interesting work,” he says. “It was fun, and I earned a living doing it.”

He and his wife raised three children and have two grandchildren to keep them busy in retirement. Pat golfs, Peggy gardens. They take long walks together. When the children were young, Pat would have other dads come up to him and ask if he was the Pat Matzdorf who set a World Record in the high jump. It occurs less often these days.

“An A-1 individual,” Maggard calls him.

“The kind of guy who would do anything for you,” Brown says.

“Great guy,” says Stones.

On a picture-perfect day in Berkeley 50 years ago, the same guy became the highest high jumper who had ever lived. It would be a mixed blessing.

“Had I not set the record at that meet, I think the momentum would have carried on, and I like to think it would been a better path for me,” Matzdorf says. “Regardless, I had a great time and met a lot of great people. I cherish it.”