Lee Balkin's high jumping career has reached the twilight stage, that mediatory period between light and dark. What he doesn't know is whether the light comes from the first rays of dawn or the last glow of evening.
Balkin, 28, was a high jump standout for Glendale High and UCLA, but it remains to be seen whether his best jumps are ahead of him . . . or behind him.
Sunday, at the Jack in the Box Invitational, he had a chance to find out against some of the best jumpers in the world, including world record-holder Javier Sotomayor of Cuba and U. S. record-holder Hollis Conway. The result was, predictably, ambiguous.
After missing badly on his first two attempts at 7 feet, 4 1/2 inches, Balkin easily cleared the bar on his third attempt. At 7-6 1/2, he again had two shaky attempts before nearly clearing the height on his final try.
"I'm disappointed from the standpoint that I had a very good jump at 7-4 1/2 and then I didn't get over the next height," Balkin said. "If I wouldn't have hit it on the way up, I would have been over it."
Balkin, who jumps for the Stars & Stripes Track Club, won the Pepsi Meet (the Jack in the Box meet's precursor) in 1985. This year, he watched the younger eagles soar.
Sotomayor and Balkin have only jumped against one another occasionally, but Balkin and Conway have been competing against each other since the middle of the decade. The two sat together and chatted throughout the meet, giving each other pointers and discussing training.
"When I first saw him, I didn't think he could jump that high," Conway said of Balkin, 6-4 and 168 pounds. "But I hadn't beaten Lee much before this year. It just seemed like if he was third, I was fourth. We used to joke about it."
Conway bested Balkin this time, finishing second to Balkin's fourth, but neither could stay with Sotomayor, who makes Michael Jordan look like he jumps in cement Nikes.
The Cuban won with a leap of 7-8 1/2.
"The days of beating Sotomayor are over," said Balkin, who bested Sotomayor in the 1987 Weltklasse meet in Zurich. "I don't get dismayed when I see Sotomayor jump that high. It makes me hungry.
"He's my height. He's stronger than me, but if he can do it, I can get close to it."
The Jack in the Box was the last major meet of the U. S. season, and Balkin will now put his UCLA geography degree to work while he hopscotches around Europe. Already scheduled to compete in meets in Austria, West Germany and Italy, he will jump in additional meets whenever he can.
He is seeking to salvage a season that began promisingly with a 7-5 3/4 leap at the Mount San Antonio College Relays but then tailed off with a disappointing 7-3 3/4 jump and 10th-place finish in The Athletics Congress national championships.
"It's been an up and down year, no pun intended," Balkin said.
No stranger to big jumps, Balkin won the 1987 Olympic Festival with a personal-record 7-7 3/4, and has competed in three Olympic Trials. He set a national high school record of 7-3 1/4 in 1979.
"He looked so good at Mt. SAC in April," said former world-record high jumper Dwight Stones, working at the Jack in the Box for ESPN. "I thought he might really fly this year. So far, it hasn't happened."
Balkin has reached the point in his career when slumps and permanent declines look suspiciously alike. Stones, Conway and Harry Sneider, Balkin's former coach, all insist that Balkin has at least three good, and perhaps his best, years ahead of him. Balkin isn't so sure.
"I can take it or leave it," said Balkin, who also has been coaching track and teaching at Glendale College. "I'm ready to get involved with life. This could be my last campaign. I really have other aspirations and goals than jumping.
"High jumping hasn't given me the thrills it has in the past. I think I'm growing up and away from athletics. It's time to re-focus."
A combination of injury and technique problems have hindered Balkin throughout his career.
He has been in surgery more often than Marcus Welby and most recently underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle in October.
"By all rights, he shouldn't be out here jumping," said Sneider, who began coaching Balkin in 1984.
"He's had many more foot (actually ankle) problems than anyone deserves in a lifetime," Stones said, "and ironically his father is a podiatrist."
Balkin says the ankle doesn't bother him if he uses proper technique, but, of course, proper technique is the Holy Grail of jumpers. Like many high jumpers, he has done more work with the approach and takeoff than Chuck Yeager. Stones believes Balkin might be suffering from "analysis paralysis" and says that Balkin is his own harshest critic.
"It's a matter of just being confident and doing what I know I can do," Balkin said. "I can overanalyze at this point. It's just running and jumping over the bar. The best jumps come when you're relaxed, and it's effortless."
Balkin will shoot for some of those big jumps in Europe. While his career appears to be in eclipse now, he may indeed reaffirm the adage that it's darkest before the dawn.