Some opponents and teammates say it isn't fair. Isn't it enough that Charles Clinger has the advantage of being 6-foot-9? Is it fair that he's also fast and athletic, too?
Clinger, Weber State's triple-threat jumper, is so athletic and versatile that the most difficult task he faces is deciding which discipline to pursue. Long jump? Triple jump? High jump? All three? Sprints? Someday he plans to pursue the decathlon, which consists of 10 different events. His coaches say he could be a sprinter. They were tempted to put him on their sprint relay team but decided against it because of the risk of injury. In fall conditioning work, he ran repeat 500- and 600-meter intervals with the whole team and ran with the lead pack."He's not afraid of that stuff at all," says Weber coach Dan Walker.
Weber coaches think Clinger could also excel in other sports, as well, although they'd just as soon no one knew about it. "Whatever you do, don't watch him play basketball," Walker once told Weber basketball coaches. He says he was kidding, but maybe he wasn't. The school's basketball coaches have tried to recruit Clinger for their sport. Clinger's got game and serious ups. During a pickup game last winter, he was standing with his back to the basket at the foul line when he turned, took one dribble and dunked over the 6-foot-2 Walker.
"He didn't even have momentum, he just went up," says Walker. "My face was in his thigh."
Jumping is what Clinger loves most and what he does best. With a running start, he can put his chin on the rim of a basketball hoop, but the most impressive thing he does is throw his entire body over a bar set at 7 1/2 feet. If it involves jumping, Clinger can do it. At the Big Sky Conference championships he placed first in the high jump, second in the long jump and third in the triple jump.
Clinger was skeptical when Weber coaches encouraged him to try the triple jump this year. He had done the event in high school four years ago, but never in college. Then he leaped 50 feet, 8 inches, and Walker says, "Now all he talks about is the triple jump." He also has leaped 24-3 in the long jump and 7-6 in the high jump, his best event.
Clinger, a sophomore, ranks second in the nation heading into this weekend's NCAA Track and Field Championships in Boise, a half-inch behind the University of Texas' Mark Boswell, a Canadian. Clinger also plans to compete in the USA championships later this month and possibly the World University Games later this summer. Beyond that, there is the Olympics (he already has qualified for the Olympic Trials).
"He's just a kid," says Walker. "He's 22. He'll be 23 for the next Olympics and 27 for the Olympics after that."
Everywhere Clinger goes, of course, people assume he is a basketball player, and if things had gone according to plan that's what he'd be. His ambition was to win a basketball scholarship in high school (his father played junior college basketball, and his sister Cynthia was the starting center for 1993 national champion Texas Tech, playing along side the legendary Cheryl Swoopes).
It was basketball that originally brought Clinger to track. His ninth-grade basketball coach suggested that he join the track team to stay in shape for basketball, but eventually he did track for track's sake. Miffed that his basketball coach refused to put him in the starting lineup, even during his junior season when he was selected to the all-state team, he quit the sport and took up track full time. He won all three jumping events at the Wyoming state championships, setting state records in the long jump and high jump.
"The (basketball) coach didn't like anyone to stand out," says Clinger. "That hurts when you're trying to get a scholarship. I started one game."
Clinger spent a year at Boise State, studying under former Olympic high jump coach Ed Jacoby, then served a two-year LDS Church mission. Meanwhile, Jacoby retired and the Broncos essentially told Clinger not to come back, so he transferred to Weber. Much to his surprise, despite a two-year layoff in which he did no training, Clinger improved his personal record a whopping 5 inches.
"And his technique is still not real good," says Walker. "He's not picture perfect. I have to remind myself he's only a sophomore."
Clinger, with each success, is a growing curiosity in track, an 81-inch oddity with his combination of height, speed and jumping ability. "Unless you're familiar with the sport, you don't appreciate how rare it is that someone his size does these things," says Walker. "That's what he's so unusual. He can run like crazy. We do sprint workouts with the jumpers, and he just runs away from the high jumpers and long jumpers."
Some of his rivals and teammates wonder at Clinger's abilities. "It's not fair," Walker has heard them say. One distance runner complained, "I feel cheated because I have to work so hard, and he's so good at everything."
Says Walker, "I'm excited to see where he can take this in the next couple of years."