Feb. 13, 2017
By Tyler Testin
In the high jump, an athlete attempts to leap over a bar suspended nearly seven feet in the air. It is a solo event, but this test of individual agility and strength has forged a close friendship between Notre Dame’s top two high jumpers. Junior Hunter Holton and sophomore Matthew Birzer together have helped the Fighting Irish track program reach new heights.
“We do pretty much everything athletically together; lifting, training, jumping at the same time of day,” Holton said. “It’s been really good for me. Freshman year I was by myself as the only high jumper. Matt came in and we were both jumping really well early on. We’ll push each other. I think there is that competition between each other, which is good to have.”
With an additional year of collegiate track experience, Holton has served as both teammate and mentor to Birzer. The duo roomed together at away meets, and Holton’s guidance eased the younger jumper’s transition to Division I college track and field. Birzer put up impressive numbers in his freshman season, including a second-place finish at the Atlantic Coast Conference Championships, posting a career-best jump of 7 feet 1.5 inches.
“I’ve appreciated having a teammate,” Birzer said. “In high school I basically jumped alone all four years. I got to college and I had another guy jumping the same heights as me. It definitely pushed me because I like being competitive and I like having someone to compete against. At the same time, we’re teammates; we want the other to do well.”
At Notre Dame’s Meyo Invitational held February 3-4, one of the major meets of the indoor track season, the two both finished in the top 10 for the high jump. It was one of Birzer and Holton’s final competitions at Notre Dame until the ACC Indoor Championship at the end of February. Holton tied his personal record with a jump of 6 feet 9.75 inches and finished in third place. Birzer ended the home meet in sixth place, but bounced back at the Tiger Paw Invitational hosted by Clemson on February 10-11. In South Carolina, Birzer took second place with a height of 7 feet 0.5 inches; his best jump of the spring.
“I’ve been happy with my performance so far,” Birzer said. “I’ve been jumping decently high, not hitting as high of bars as I want to, but at the same time we’re still training hard. We’re not at the point of the point of the year yet where we need to be peaking. The season is still young. We’re not going to be done until hopefully mid-June.”
Notre Dame’s two high jumpers will have more opportunities to prove themselves prior to the outdoor championships beginning in May. The indoor season comes to a close with the ACC Championship on February 23-25 followed by the NCAA Championship on March 10-11 for those who qualify. The Penn Relays held near the end of the outdoor regular season are also marked on the jumpers’ calendar. The track team stands to have competitive scores all season with these two friends jumping for the Irish.
“Seeing someone else jumping high on my own team was awesome to have,” Holton said. “Our goal turned from just me doing more of my own thing to once we had another jumper with me, I was like let’s go out here and score points at conference and really help each other try and make the jumps team perform as well as we could.”
This spring, Birzer is looking to build upon a 16th place finish at last season’s regional outdoor track meet. He was just four spots away from qualifying for the national outdoor competition. The friendly rivalry between the two jumpers has pushed them to chase higher bars, but they also offer lots of encouragement to each other along the way. Birzer and Holton know what to say to each other to get focused and motivated before their events.
“We’re good friends so when one of us is freaking out, which inevitably happens, or we’re having bad days, the other one is there to straighten them up and talk sense into the other,” Birzer said. “It’s been a good dynamic.”
Despite similar pedigrees – business students at Notre Dame, multisport athletes at their midwestern high schools – these two high jumpers have starkly different personalities. Preparation for each upcoming event is a team effort that seems to fit both Birzer and Holton well.
“Even outside of meets Hunter likes to worry about stuff and make sure everything is going to be right, and I like to clear my mind and relax,” Birzer said. “We’re pretty different in that sense but it fits together well.”
The friendship between the sophomore and junior high jumpers has proven to be a powerful force on the track. Holton’s advising contributed to Birzer’s breakout freshman season. Both athletes aim to raise the bar even higher at competitions this spring.
Tyler Testin has been a Fighting Irish Media student writer since August of 2016. A Cedar Rapids, Iowa native, Testin is a freshman at the University of Notre Dame pursuing a degree in electrical engineering.