Klima finds UI home
CHAMPAIGN – This wasn't the hard-edged hazing Matt Klima had experienced just months before at the U.S. Military Academy.
It was more your standard-issue trash talk, the kind that can be found at college athletic fields and arenas across the country.
Still, on this early fall day in 1994, the verbal taunts really rubbed the aspiring University of Illinois sprinter the wrong way. Klima, then a freshman walk-on, simply was in no mood for this nonsense.
"All the guys were laughing at me," recalled Klima. "That kind of burned me."
Maybe Klima's reaction stemmed from the fact that his first day at Illini track and field practice hadn't exactly gotten off on the right foot. He had assumed that the team was working out at the UI Armory. Upon finding out differently, Klima had to rush over to the UI Outdoor Track Stadium and ended up reporting late.
Maybe it was because Klima had made one of the most significant decisions of his young life just weeks before – to leave West Point – and was still on edge about how this new direction would work.
Or maybe it was simply that the competitive Oak Park native was determined to show he belonged, even if he wasn't the most imposing physical specimen there.
"Maybe I was just goofy looking back then," Klima said, smiling at the memory. "I was pretty skinny. And I had been inside all summer, so it must have looked ridiculous – here's a pale white guy coming out, particularly in the sprinting events. You don't see a lot of white sprinters. I was the only freshman out there, too. Typically, freshman are going to get that (treatment) anyway."
Klima didn't respond in kind, but he was ready to respond in a way that would quiet the taunters. Lining up with the sprinters for time trials in the half-mile, the newcomer ripped off the group's fastest time.
"In retrospect, I'm very happy that that happened to me because that set the tone for me here," Klima said of his test under verbal fire. "I'll remember that day in the back of my mind every time I'm at the track, every time I step to the blocks.
"That was great motivation. I came out there, and I blew the doors off them in the time trial. That's how I made the team."
These days, nobody questions whether Klima belongs.
Just this winter, the Illini junior broke his own year-old school record in the 600 meters. His clocking of 1 minute, 18.64 seconds ranks seventh on the all-time Big Ten Conference list.
In the 1996 NCAA Indoor Championships, Klima earned All-America status while helping the UI's distance medley relay team place fifth.
He's run on three Big Ten champion 4 x 400 relay teams, twice indoors and once outdoors. And he ranks fifth on the all-time UI list in the 400 hurdles.
All this from a former walk-on.
"It's worked out great for us, that's for sure," Illini coach Gary Wieneke said.
Klima can say the same.
"Probably I'm most proud of being able to come out here and walk on the team," the 6-foot-4, 180-pounder said. "That's not something that a lot of people are able to do. And I've gone on and had some success."
His post-high school days have been a far different experience than Klima anticipated upon graduating from Oak Park-River Forest in 1994. Back then, the U.S. Military Academy seemed to offer everything the then-18-year-old was looking for.
"Not only is your school free, but I was going to be able to run track," he said. "I was going to be an officer after I graduated. I was guaranteed of a job. I thought it was something I'd be interested in trying."
Try he did. Two weeks after high school graduation, Klima was in New York studying military strategy, getting acquainted with the firing power of an M-16 and literally marching to a different beat.
"I liked the military side of it ... and actually I was pretty good at it," said Klima, who twice received the Commandant's Award as the outstanding new cadet in his regiment.
But as the weeks passed, it became obvious to Klima that there were more things he didn't like.
– Such as being informed that Academy graduates would no longer be guaranteed officer status.
"I don't know if I wanted to go to West Point and not be an officer," Klima said. "It kind of seemed like the whole point of going there was to be an officer."
– Such as learning that his track coach was leaving.
"So many things that I had gone there originally for had changed for me," Klima said.
– Such as learning that, in the classroom, military topics would always take priority over more traditional academic studies.
"And if you're not looking to be a career military officer – like I didn't know if I wanted to be – you're looking for something else as far as an education," Klima said.
– Such as coming to fully comprehend that killing was no abstract concept.
"We're going out there and playing GI Joe," Klima said of combat training sessions. "We've got our M-16s. But, man, those things are loaded. You think, man, you're not screwing around here. They're teaching you out there to kill somebody. You're going to actually have to put a bullet in someone, or someone's going to put a bullet in you.
"When you're 18, that's something that strikes you kind of hard."
After meeting with academy counselors and conferring with his parents, Klima decided to resign his commission. It was a decision accompanied by a lot of anguished thought.
"That was my dream – I was going to be an officer," he said. "Everything I had been dreaming about for about a year was gone. Being only 18, it was kind of a crushing blow."
Thankfully, says Klima, his experience at the UI has more than eased that blow.
Klima's focus this spring is fixed on being as big a factor in the hurdles as he has been indoors in the 600 and the relays. It irritates Klima to no end to think that he's never finished higher than eighth in the 400 hurdles at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships.
"It's funny, but indoor should be harder for me," Klima said. "I really should be better outdoors, being as tall as I am, and the curves aren't as tight."
UI associate head coach Willie Williams, who works with the hurdlers, is confident Klima can be among the Big Ten's best in the hurdles. Williams points out that Klima's height – and resulting stride – give him a significant advantage. Instead of taking 15 steps between hurdles, as many hurdlers do, Klima can do it in 13.
"If he has a little trouble, he'll go to 14 and alternate steps," Williams said, "but he'll still be below the guy who's running 15."
As a prep, Klima enjoyed his greatest success in this specialty, placing third in the 300 hurdles and fifth in the 110 hurdles at the 1994 Class AA state meet.
Klima can't explain why he hasn't enjoyed similar success in the hurdles collegiately. But maybe that's changing. After all, he's already run a career-best 51.56 in the 400 hurdles this spring. Only four others in UI history have done better.
"It's starting to come along now," Klima said. "so I'm hoping this outdoor season is a little more reflective of what I think I'm capable of doing."