Why is that 40-year-old man still flying upside down 20 feet in the air?
Well, it's an Olympic year, for one thing.
And pole vaulter Jeff Hartwig hasn't seen Beijing. Not upside down, not right side up.
And no one else that age has done what he's doing. Think Nolan Ryan. Think George Blanda. Think Peter Pan.
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Hartwig has the credentials to earn his second Olympic berth (he made the team in 1996) heading into the 67th California Invitational Relays on Saturday at MJC Stadium. He was ranked No. 2 in the United States by Track & Field News magazine in 2007, when he won the U.S. Indoor, was second at the U.S. Outdoor and had a best of 19 feet, 2¼ inches. That made 11 out of the past 12 years he cleared 19 feet.
This past indoor season, he set five Masters (40-and-over) indoor world records, including an 18-8 in Germany, and set a Masters outdoor mark of 18-1 two weekends ago at the Drake Relays on a cold, windy Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa.
"This will be my last year," said the Jonesboro, Ark., resident who lives with wife Karol, 3-year-old daughter Heidi Kay, eight dogs and about 100 snakes.
"I have always said one year at a time, but I honestly never thought I would make it this far," Hartwig said in an e-mail interview. "The biggest things that kept me going was of course the chance to make the Olympic team, and the fact that I truly love the sport and the lifestyle of being a full-time athlete."
"I have never been to China, and that is another thing that would make the Olympics special. (Asked if they should be used as a political forum, his answer is an emphatic no.) The side benefit to doing what I do is having had the opportunity to see so much of the world."
The American record holder at 19-9¼, he's seen a lot of Modesto over the years. He held the Modesto meet record of 19-5 before Toby Stevenson went 19-8¼ in 2004.
Stevenson also will compete Saturday, going for his fifth consecutive Modesto win. So will Derek Miles, who won at Drake at 18-4, and Sonora product Tye Harvey. And the last two Olympic gold medalists, Tim Mack and Nick Hysong.
Down the road is the Olympic Trials — June 27-July 6 in Eugene, Ore.
Hartwig knows the Trials are a fickle lover — he no-heighted at the event in Sacramento in 2000 and 2004.
Stevenson finished second to Mack in 2004 and went on to win the silver medal in Athens.
Miles got the third and final spot in the Trials at 19-¼. He edged the unfortunate Harvey, who was the first over 19-¼ on his only chance (he passed on his third jump after two misses at 18-10¼) but had to settle for fourth because of more misses.
Despite the adversity, Hartwig is up for his fifth Olympic Trials.
"Obviously, the Olympics is the primary goal, but it's not a must have," he said. "My main focus is on the Trials, but I have also set out to just enjoy the year and appreciate all the opportunities I do have."
And he said the Masters record thing has been "really fun."
"To be honest, I don't feel any older or different than I did several years ago," said the 6-foot-3-inch, 190-pounder. "I feel that I have done a good job dealing with the issues that usually affect athletes as they age. I spend a lot of time making sure I avoid injury.
"I jump twice a week when I don't have meets, but in those workouts I typically limit the number of jumps to 10 to 12, so I have to really focus to make sure the jumps are quality versus quantity."
That's not many jumps.
"Unfortunately, what is the most fun is also the hardest on the body, so it is more to save my body but also to allow me enough energy to work on the supportive training to avoid the injuries," Hartwig said.
Do his fellow vaulters kid the old man? Sure, they do. These acrobats tend to be an engaging group with an easy camaraderie and plenty of stories to tell.
"I get kidded a little but in a respectful way," Hartwig said. "I think most of the guys realize that being the old guy out there I am not quite at the level I was six or eight years ago, but it's all in good fun. It keeps me younger."
Maybe so, but his driver's license (or is it a flyer's license?) says he's not thirty-something anymore.
"That is a tough question at this point," Hartwig said. "I am so focused on this season, but I have several options that will keep me close to the sport.
"I would like to work with young athletes in some capacity but would also like to stay close to some of the older athletes on the professional level in the way of some kind of management or coaching capacity. I know that my experience would be a benefit in many areas to a lot of people."
Back home, he raises boa constrictors and pythons for sale to pet stores.
"I have a soft spot for the strays, and I end up rescuing them," he said.
Lucky strays. The great new Master becomes their great new master.