Gophers’ Strand won’t be satisfied until he’s the best at what he does

Michael Dougherty

The goals and ambitions of a world-class athlete tend to be different than those of much of the rest of society.
Then there are some athletes, like Gophers high jumper Staffan Strand, who won’t even settle for lofty achievements.
As the Big Ten record holder in the high jump with a mark of 7 feet, 6 1/2 inches — a half-inch taller than NBA giraffe Shawn Bradley — Strand would gladly take a Big Ten championship or an NCAA indoor title.
However, that is not what drives him. He wants to be remembered as one of the best ever.
“You’re never going to be remembered for making the big mark just once,” Strand said. “The 7-6 1/2 I opened up with at the Minnesota Invitational is nice, but in 10 years time nobody is going to remember that.
“On the other hand, if I can become the national champion at 7-4 or 7-5, that’s way bigger to me.”
That statement is the epitome of Strand’s attitude. But it is surprising to see all of this confidence pouring out of a man who is in a — clear your throat — high jump slump.
“I’m not jumping real well,” Strand said. “I’m in really good physical shape, but technically I’m just out of it. I don’t have any feeling for the high jump. I wish I knew what was causing it. My technique has just gone with the wind.”
Part of his self-criticism likely comes from his drive for perfection — a will that led him to school here.
Strand, a junior in computer engineering in his second year of eligibility, came to Minnesota from Upplands-Vasby, Sweden, to combine academics and athletics in a more efficient way than is possible overseas.
“In Sweden (track and field) is not at all connected to the university,” he said. “So you can never go to school and practice in the same place.”
By not having the opportunity to train and go to school simultaneously, Strand was forced to do a lot of traveling back-and-forth.
Strand said being in Minnesota has brought its positives and negatives. The positives include the ability to properly balance academics with the competitions, but it is the negatives which concern him the most.
“The bad thing is that I feel so far away from Europe sometimes,” Strand said. “Track is big-time in Europe, and except for the collegians, there’s not a lot of competition here.
“Nowadays the American track circuit has only a couple of major meets, like the Millrose Games.”
Strand competed in the 91st annual Millrose Games on Feb. 14, and tied for second place in the high jump with a mark of 7-2 1/2. The event was won by Norwegian Steinar Hoen, who cleared the same mark but had fewer misses than Strand.
The event featured five of the top eight high jumpers in the world. The winning height was surprisingly low — something men’s track and field head coach Phil Lundin attributed to the surrounding conditions.
“The performances were nothing near world class, considering the world class field,” Lundin said. “Apparently, the physical environment wasn’t conducive to jumping.”
But despite the less than spectacular overall performances, Lundin was happy with the end result.
“To tie for second in an international field is damn good,” Lundin said. “We’re real proud.”
With the Millrose Games behind him and the Big Tens and the NCAAs on the horizon, it would be logical to assume Strand has some goals set for those meets.
Yet the confident Strand refuses to set goals that he considers to be too easily attainable, and succeeding at those meets falls into that category.
“To some people it is a great thing to go to the NCAAs or the Big Tens,” he said. “But I have bigger ambitions.”
Those ambitions entail something even larger than simply qualifying for the Olympics — considered the pinnacle of success by many athletes.
“I’m not one of those guys that is trying to just get into the Olympics,” Strand said. “It would be stupid if you only had the ambition of trying to go to the Olympics because that means, first and foremost, you are not very likely to get there.
“And if you do get there, you are just going to be happy about being there, and you are never going to be able to compete well. You’ve got to have higher aspirations.”
So with talk of the Big Tens, the NCAAs and making the Olympics resulting in a yawn, what is left for Strand?
“If I’m going to the Olympics, I want to win it,” he said.
If his technique and feeling return, maybe Strand will physically achieve what his brash mentality desires: recognition as the world’s best high jumper.