By Matt Sullivan/Ragin’ Cajuns Athletics
Silver medal at ’88 Seoul Games began run for Cajuns star as top high jumper in the world
LAFAYETTE – The moment of capturing a medal at the 1988 Summer Olympic Games didn’t really hit Hollis Conway until he arrived home to Lafayette a few days later.
When he first arrived in Seoul for the 1988 Summer Olympic Games as a skinny 21-year-old, the then Ragin’ Cajuns sophomore high jumper was there to just have a good time. When not competing, the Shreveport native took in his first Olympic experience as a fan, supporting many of his Team USA teammates at their respective venues.
And by the time he cleared a personal-best 7-8 ¾ to claim the silver medal on a sunny Sunday afternoon, 30 years ago to the day, Conway would begin a period in which he was the top American high jumper over a seven-year period, ranked in the top four in the world for six consecutive years and being ranked No. 1 in the world for two straight years.
One of 10 high jumpers in Olympic history to capture multiple medals in the event, Conway would later claim the bronze medal at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona and join a list of select group that included two-time American medalists John Thomas (1960, 1964) and Dwight Stones (1972, 1976).
“I remember not understanding what the Olympics meant. I was so naive at the time … I was just having a good time and enjoying the moment,” Conway said. “I remember (1988 bronze medalist) Brad Gilbert giving me tickets to watch tennis. I went and watched volleyball and gymnastics. I saw everything. During my time there, I was the biggest fan and not really understanding the impact of the moment and what it meant … because I wasn’t expected to make the team.”
Conway, though, came out of nowhere and made the team after clearing 7-7 ¼ at the 1988 US Olympic Trials two months earlier in Indianapolis. Joining veteran high jumpers Jim Howard and Brian Stanton, Conway finished second overall to the 30-year old Howard, who cleared 7-8 overall.
“I’ve always jumped out of fear, which in every psychological test we’ve ever done, that’s not the recommended way to do it,” Conway said. “But I’ve always wanted to clear a height. All of the focus was on making the next height. It didn’t matter who was there, didn’t matter how tall they were, you’ve got to make the next height. So when I stood there, looking at the bar, I got some butterflies, but it made me try harder … where other people would shut down. I was afraid to miss, so I tried harder.”
Among those competing with Conway in the 27-man field included Hennadiy Avdyeyenko and Rudolf Povarnitsyn of the USSR, 1984 gold medalist Dietmar Mögenburg of Germany, 1984 bronze medalist Zhu Jianhua of the People’s Republic of China, eventual three-time medalist Patrik Sjoberg of Sweden and eventual two-time medalist Artur Partyka of Poland.
“I was just a young guy and I just had fun,” said Conway. “I remember the Opening Ceremonies, walking out and waving at people, and really enjoying it. The competition was weird because I had a lot of misses, but I really didn’t understand strategy. I was making heights on second and third attempts, which is bad. And then I jumped a personal-best (7-8 ¾), so I kept making heights and when I cleared it, I still didn’t know I had finished second.”
Conway kept clearing heights and when the final results were done, he had finished behind Avdyeyenko, who cleared 7-9 ¾ and set an Olympic record. The second-place finish for Conway marked the first overall medal claimed by an American high jumper since Stones earned bronze in 1976 (Montreal) and was the first silver medal for a U.S. jumper since Ed Caruthers 20 years earlier at the Mexico City Games.
“When they give you your (Olympic) uniforms, you get competition uniforms and an awards uniform, that we had to switch into,” Conway said. “It, really, kind of hit me a little bit when you get into the pomp and circumstance. The ladies all came out in all, full traditional dress, and flowers, and you’re lining up and they’re giving you instructions. And you walk out into that stadium, and they’re announcing it in so many different languages. And then you’re standing out there on the podium … that was pretty cool!”
While the feeling of what the Olympics meant and claiming a silver medal was just starting to get to Conway during the medal ceremony, it didn’t officially hit him until he returned home.
“The first time it hit me was when I flew back to Lafayette, and the town went crazy,” Conway said. “You had people meeting me at the airport, and then the parade. The (USL) Homecoming Parade and football game. I’m there … for Homecoming, and the band marches out and they opened up a big American flag. I snuck out there with a band uniform on and hid under the flag. I took off the band uniform, they moved the flag and I was out there in the middle of the field, and the crowd went crazy. Slowly, I understood what it meant.”
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