Ups and downs are a constant in Amber Kaufman’s elite athletic life, literally and figuratively.
The University of Hawaii senior is a world-class high jumper going after an elusive gold medal today in the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships at University of Oregon’s Hayward Field.
She is a volleyball All-American, whose high-altitude career culminated in a final-four appearance last December.
Kaufman is also an enigma. She can be charming and funny, angry and unforgiving – particularly toward herself – and fearless or fraught with doubt.
The only shade of high jumping hardware she is missing is gold. She finished third at this meet a year ago, becoming the first Rainbow to medal in 25 years, and second to Arizona’s Elizabeth Patterson at the NCAA Indoors in March.
(Gwen Loud, a member of UH’s Circle of Honor, is the school’s only women’s track and field national champion, winning the long jump in 1984.)
Kaufman has been the top-ranked jumper in college – and third in the U.S. – since soaring 6 feet, 3.25 inches (1.91 meters) early in the outdoor season. Her official personal best, not including any of her majestic volleyball jumps, is 6-4.
Her unofficial best came a little over a week ago at practice, with the aid of a training box that did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of UH coach Carmyn James or Kaufman after she flew more than 2 meters (nearly 6-6).
"She did it with such ease," James recalled. "It was pretty exciting. She was surprised, but happy. We looked at each other and there was a moment of quiet and then we went a little crazy. We stopped practice on that note."
There are other signs that this could be Kaufman’s day.
The three-time track All-American is jumping on the same field where she dominated last year’s NCAA West Regional and took 12th at the 2008 Olympic Trials. Her hotel room number is 209, which, as Kaufman noted immediately, has also been the women’s high jump world record since 1987 (2.09 meters is a little more than 6-10).
At her fifth NCAA track national meet, she is acutely aware she must search out her comfort zone. It lies somewhere between over-the-top excitement and composed enough that she doesn’t beat herself up.
It is a fine solo line far different from what she experienced at volleyball’s final four.
"In volleyball I’m a lot less nervous because it’s not solely based on me," said Kaufman, who still has a year of track eligibility remaining. "For track, I was nervous a week ago."
Sometimes, she knows, that helps.
"I’m really thinking she’ll be able to do it," James said. "Part of it is because she’s not putting as much pressure on herself, not forcing it."
That comes with experience – the highs Kaufman has accomplished, and the lows she has lived through, including the heart-wrenching runner-up finish in March.
"That was the worst thing that could have happened, she’s been there and done that and it was not that bad," James said. "She won’t have as much fear of failure. Before it was the unknown and now she knows it wasn’t that bad. She doesn’t want to repeat that, but having that attitude going in will allow her to be calmer."