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Athletics: Hemingway's great leap upwards

A not so quiet American is hoping to be a big noise in Paris. Simon Turnbull on a reward for hard work

Like his grandfather's cousin, Matt Hemingway wants to go to Paris to make a name for himself. Ernest Hemingway did rather well for himself in the French capital, where he settled in the 1920s to make the transition from journalist to author – and to drink the world under the table at La Coupole and other establishments along the boulevard Montparnasse. Matt will be happy if he is in need of a night on the town to celebrate on 25 August. The final of the men's high jump takes place that day at the track and field world championships in the Stade de France.

For the past week, Matt Hemingway has been in pole position among the world's high jumpers. Competing at the Modesto Relays Meeting in California last weekend, the 30-year-old American jumped 2.34m. It took him to the top of the world rankings for 2003. It also made a big impression on Charles Austin, the Texan who won the world title in Tokyo in 1991 and who took Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996.

"Matt's a really great jumper," Austin said. "What he did was nothing short of amazing." It was indeed exceptional. The football pitch at Modesto Junior College does not allow for a full apron of all-weather material, thus requiring high jumpers to start their run-ups on grass and take only their last three steps on the synthetic surface. In such far-from-ideal conditions, Austin himself cleared 2.18m. He then sat back in a state of near-shock as his 12-year-old American record, 2.40m, was threatened by Hemingway.

Having secured victory in the competition with his clearance at 2.34m, Hemingway raised the bar to 2.37m and registered two failures before making one attempt at 2.41m. He failed at that rarified height, too, although the extent of his ambition underlined the depth of his new-found confidence. It was only the second competition of the year for Hemingway, who, after a long on-off relationship with the high jump, is finally making a concerted effort to master the event.

A native of San Pedro, California, he emerged from the University of Arkansas in 1996 to take fourth place at the United States' Olympic trials in Atlanta. It could hardly have been a more cruel experience. The first four men in the competition – Austin, Ed Broxterman, Cameron Wright and Hemingway – all cleared the same height, 2.30m. Hemingway lost a place on the US team for the home Olympics by virtue of the countback system, having taken more attempts than his rivals.

The blow hit him hard. He finished 10th at the national championships the following year but then gave up the sport, saying he was tired of it. He moved to Colorado and became a whitewater raft guide, the kind of rugged outdoor pursuit of which his grandfather's cousin would have no doubt approved.

Not until 2000, and the approach of another Olympic Games, did the 6ft 7in Hemingway find the motivation to venture back into the track and field arena. He returned as a spectacular success, initially at any rate. In Atlanta in March that year, he won the US indoor title, leaping a mighty 2.38m. It left him at the top of the world indoor rankings for 2000. By the time the Olympic trials came round in July, though, his world-class form had deserted him. He could only finish 10th in Sacramento, jumping 2.17m Then followed another blank year.

Hemingway's father died in 2001 and he also suffered a stress fracture of the foot. He threw his energies into his job, working 55 hours a week running a wireless store in Denver. Then, last summer, he quit and set off for Europe on a make-or-break mission – to discover whether he could hack it as a professional athlete on the grand prix circuit.

"I quit my job, sold my car and threw caution to the wind," Hemingway reflected. "My wife said, 'I knew you were crazy when I married you but this is ridiculous'." Still, when Hemingway jumped 2.32m and finished 2002 ranked seventh in the world he knew he had found his vocation.

"My life is more settled now," he said. "I'm more at peace and I feel great. I've been playing basketball, doing weights and running in the hills with my dog to get into shape." The regime has clearly worked for Hemingway, who insists he has no literary talents. "Ernest Hemingway and my grandfather were cousins," he said, "but I can't write."

Ernest brought an end to his own life in Ketchum, Idaho, in 1961. He is buried in the former mining town, which just happens to be home to Dick Fosbury, the man who invented the high-jumping flop. As for Matt Hemingway, he hopes to flop to a US record some time this summer. If he does fail with his next attempt, ask not for whom the bar rolls.