Going for Gold
Article by Michael Devault, Photography by Martin G Meyers
How the dogged pursuit of athletic glory put olympian Hollis Conway on the path to a lifetime of service.
Life for a young African-American boy growing up in the poverty of Detroit in the 1970s was hard enough. When his father and mother moved the family to Shreveport in 1976, Hollis Conway had what he describes as an epiphany: He wanted more from life than he currently had.
Like many other young, impoverished kids, one of the few opportunities for Conway to escape, to find that “something more” he sought was on the field of play. He decided at a young age he would become an athlete—not just any athlete, but the best in the world. For those who’ve never competed, the declaration seems filled with hubris. Yet, for those who’ve played competitive sports, it’s the kind of commitment athletes make to becoming the best version of themselves, a commitment to an ever-evolving set of standards, practices and goals. And, like so many other athletes in his class, Conway began on the gridiron.
“I went out for football, was going to be a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers – the greatest football team in the world,” Conway recalls. At just a hair’s breadth over 5’ 9” at the time, he had a problem. “I was too small and got cut from the team.”
Undeterred by his setback in the pursuit of greatness, Conway went out for basketball. Again, his size proved an issue, and he was cut from the team. By the time he started his freshman year at Bell Park High School, Conway’s options were growing thinner. He still wanted that way out of the poverty and limited opportunities that had marked his youth so far, but there were only so many sports. So, he decided to go after a sport in which he felt he was sure to find something he could excel at. He tried out for the Bell Park track and field team and landed a spot as a high jumper. By his sophomore year, it was clear to anyone who watched that Hollis Conway was on the path he had been seeking. He was one of the best high jumpers in Louisiana.
Conway secured a state championship his junior year – and with it, the attention of Dick Booth, the legendary track and field coach from the University of Arkansas, who had recently made the move to Southwestern Louisiana University in Lafayette. Conway continued to push himself to new limits with every practice, each competition.
By the time he graduated, he was recognized as the best high school high jumper in the United States. “I wanted something different in my life,” Conway says. “Sports was a way out.”
He attended SLU, now the University of Louisiana – Lafayette, and competed on Booth’s team through four years of college. If high school had prepared him to embark on the journey of a lifetime, college was his road of trials. For at SLU, he found himself on the team with Neal Guidry, one of the other “best high jumpers in the country.”
“We had two of the best high jumpers in the nation – both of us jumped over 7’ 6” our freshman year,” Conway says. “Then, he broke his ankle. That set him back for a year, and I was able to move forward.”
Like so many other elite athletes, moving forward is a nearly constant theme in Conway’s narrative. Jumping 7’ 6” his freshman year was an achievement that put him into contention for virtually any collegiate competition he entered. But that wasn’t enough. By the end of his sophomore year, he routinely cleared 7’ 8” – a mark that placed him on the verge of world class. Conway demurs slightly at talk of greatness.
“I had a lot of success, NCAA-wise,” he concedes.
For most competitors in Conway’s situation, those who viewed sports as a way out and a way forward, competition was a means to an end. For many, that end was a degree. For a few, professional athletics was on the horizon. Conway’s career took a left turn in 1988. At 21 years old, Conway boarded a plane from Lafayette. His destination: Seoul, South Korea.
“Out of nowhere, I made the Olympic team,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Conway went to Seoul and did what he always did. He tried to jump as high as he could. And he did – clearing almost 7’ 8.5” . Unfortunately for Conway and the American squad, the USSR’s Hennadiy Avdyeyenko had plans of his own, and Avdyeynko hit the 7’ 9.6” mark, securing an Olympic gold medal and setting a record. For many athletes, a silver medal in the Olympics would be an achievement in and of itself, but for athletes like Conway, second isn’t first, and that meant there was work to be done. Conway returned to the United States after the 1988 Seoul Games with a renewed drive to improve.
He returned to the games in 1992, this time in Barcelona. By this point, Conway was the best high jumper in the world and was largely favorited to win the games. He knew his competition, and he knew what he was capable of.
“When you’re competing at this level, you’re going to all of the different competitions and seeing the same guys,” Conway says. “You know what to expect, and you know where you stand.”
What no one factored into the equation in 1992 was a relative newcomer to the Olympic high jump – a jumper from Cuba named Javier Sotomayor. Sotomayor was far from an unknown entity in the world of track and field. He’d been competing for the Cuban national team since 1988 – and had set a high jump world record just days before the opening of the Seoul games. But Cuba’s long-standing boycott of the Olympiad meant he had never competed in the games. That changed in 1992.
At the same time, the men’s high jump competition proved one of the most unlikely matchups in history. Over the course of the finals, each of the top five competitors posted the same mark – roughly 7’ 7.5” – ending in a 5-way tie. Sotomayor secured the top spot, Swede Patrik Sjoberg secured the silver on his second attempt, and Conway found himself in a three-way tie for third, hitting the 2.34 meter mark on his third try, alongside Poland’s Artur Partyka and Australian Tim Forsyth.
“My immediate thought was, ‘Let’s get ready for Atlanta,’” Conway says. “I could earn a gold, a silver, and a bronze in the high jump. That’s something that’s never been done by an American.”
With three years to prepare for another Olympic run, he knew what he would be doing. He’d be studying biomechanics, watching videos and trying to best himself – and in the process, Sotomayor, Sjoberg and whomever else showed up in Atlanta.
In 1989, he blew out his knee. After a long road of recovery, he tore his patella tendon. An Achilles tendon bothered him for most of a year before finally requiring therapy and his removal from the Olympic team. All the while, he continued to practice and compete.
“I was hovering around 7’ 4”, 7’ 5” – good enough to keep me trying but not good enough to get me there,” he says. By the 1996 games, his Olympic dream was dead, and Conway found himself facing an existential crisis. The singular purpose for which he’d lived his life for fifteen years was gone.
“That’s the tough moment for the majority of athletes who compete at a high level,” he says. “Even athletes on the collegiate level face this problem. They graduate and then have to figure out what’s next. If you can figure that out early enough, you can make a whole lot of money.”
Today, Conway takes the lessons he learned on the field and tries to instill them in a new generation of competitors. He serves as a multi-area director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the national, faith-based organization for intermural athletic competitors. Conway oversees Northeast, North Central and Central Louisiana for the organization – tens of thousands of young athletes. He also continues to coach track and field on a pro-bono basis, working with some of the brightest young high jumpers in the state. Whether he’s dealing with a room full of FCA kids, helping a jumper reach a new goal or speaking to a gym full of high school kids – like many former Olympians, Conway delivers motivational speeches – he’s careful to always include the takeaways from his life.
“If the best you can be is the potential to win a gold medal, then you don’t settle for anything less than that – until you’ve reached the end of your career and look back at it and can see that maybe that was the best you could have done,” he says. “I’m not all about winning gold medals, but I am about being the best that I can be.”
In addition to spending his time inspiring the next generation of young athletes, Conway is raising three daughters with his college sweetheart, Charlotte. The couple have been married for 25 years.
“I’m a husband, a father, a minister, an athlete, a coach – basically whatever someone tells me to do, I just do it,” he says with a laugh. Though, he does admit, that’s what ministry is about – answering the needs as they arise.
Speaking of just doing it, twenty years has provided Conway with a certain perspective and an appreciation for the two Olympic medals he secured – even that bronze he earned in a three-way tie. Part of that appreciation is Sotomayor himself.
Just a year after taking the gold medal in Barcelona, Sotomayor set the world High Jump record in 1993 – clocking in a jump of 8’ 0.75”. He remains the only man in human history to clear an 8’ jump.