Success and failure in Rio

RIO de JANEIRO — All Olympics, I waited for this event. Sure, the Michael Phelps stuff was gripping, and Simone Biles was amazing and Usain Bolt and the tennis and the golf finish and the beach volleyball and the fencing and the judo and the table tennis and Matthew McConaughey and …

This was what I came to Rio to see.

I came to watch Christian Taylor break the triple jump world record.

The idea of a world record — of doing something, anything, better or faster or higher or more often than anyone has ever done it — has always fascinated me.

Everything about world records are entrancing, even Guinness World Records. I love comparing races to world record splits. I love the little world record yellow line that swimmers chase on TV. I love that in Kuala Lumpur, setting world records is sort of the thing to do. Among the records set in the Malaysian capitol recently: Longest distance traveling with a football balanced on the head (6.9 miles); most coconuts pierced with a finger in 30 seconds (4); most selfies taken in an hour (613).

Most of the time (and rightfully so), athletes sort of reject my over-enthusiasm for the world record. They seem to think of world records the way power hitters think of home runs — you don’t TRY to get one. They just happen. Winning is the point. Competition is the point. Records, yeah, that’s just icing on the cake, that’s just the cherry on top, that’s just the cliche of your choice.

And that’s why it was so great to meet Christian Taylor a while ago. He does not hide his ambition. He does not downplay his dreams. He trains like a madman with one goal in mind: To break Jonathan Edwards’ 21-year-old triple jump record.

Edwards set that record at the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden. It was some kind of day. Edwards is now a BBC commentator, and he remembers that on that day he felt like he could fly, like there was no limit to his jumping. He ran, jumped, and landed past the 18-meter mark — he knew right away that it was a world record and the first legal 18-meter jump ever recorded. It came in at 18.16 meters, or, roughly, 59 feet, 7 inches.

Ten minutes later, he came down the runway and jumped even longer, 18.29 meters, 60 feet on the nose, the magic number that everyone has chased since.

Lots of people have wanted that record, but only Christian Taylor has really threatened it. He won the gold medal at the London Olympics, but his winning jump of 17.81 meters was a foot and a half shy of the record. It just wasn’t good enough.

So Taylor completely revamped the way he jumps. Instead of lifting off from his left leg, the way most people are taught, he decided to switch so that he lifted off from his right leg. He compares it to a pitcher switching arms. He didn’t make the switch JUST for the record — there were injury concerns too. But, yes, the record was on his mind too. The record is always on his mind.

“Did I know I would jump longer off my right leg?” he asks. “No. But I had faith.”

It took him a year just to feel normal after the switch. He did not even make it onto the podium at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow. There he saw France’s Teddy Tamgho become just third man (after Edwards and American Kenny Harrison) to jump 18 meters. It frustrated him. And it motivated him.

“Of course I wish that was me,” he says.

Soon after the right-legged jumping started to feel good. He was jumping longer and longer in practice. He broke 18 meters at a meet in Qatar at the beginning of 2015. And then, in Beijing at last year’s world championships, he broke free. He jumped 18.21, the second longest triple jump in history, eight centimeters away from Edwards jump.

“Eight stinking centimeters!” Taylor told me.

“It’s a cigarette!” Taylor told me.

“It’s a stick of chewing gum!” Taylor told me.

Yes, this was the passion for world records I was looking for. And so while all these other Olympic events have been nice, impressive, awe-inspiring, fun, glorious and whatever other Olympic adjective you like, this was my main event. I came to see Christian Taylor break that record.

On his very first jump of the morning, Taylor went a staggering 17.84 meters. In other words, he more or less clinched the competition right away. That distance was not only longer than his gold-medal jump in London, it would have been long enough to win every Olympics going back to 2000.

“Well,” Jonathan Edwards tweeted, “he’s won gold. What else I wonder?” And then he put a red-cheeked smiley face for all to see.

Taylor’s friend and competitor Will Claye — who would have his own glorious day — jumped a couple of moments later, and he too soared. He jumped a patriotic 17.76, the longest jump of his life. This all seemed like a good omen. “We both thought, ‘Whoa!’” Taylor would say. “We never get out of the box like that. … We thought, ‘Oh, something special is going to happen today.’”

Taylor is great fun to watch triple jump. First thing he does is pump himself up. “Right now!” he shouts at himself. “This is it!” he shouts at himself. And then he unleashed a death stare down the runway, and you can tell he’s visualizing every step, imagining every leap. After a couple of seconds, while he stares, he will begin clapping over his head to get the crowd involved. Clap. Clap. Clap. Come on! The stadium was mostly empty but with this being a morning final, Edwards was actually impressed with how many people showed up. “I thought there might be like 100 people,” he said. He said their energy seared through him.

On the second jump, Taylor went 17.77 meters, another fantastic jump – but not fantastic enough. He was still almost more than a foot and a half away from the record. Taylor fouled on his third jump. On the fourth, he again jumped 17.77. And then on the fifth jump, he fouled again.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe I was too pumped up. Maybe there was too much energy.”

After the fifth jump, Taylor shouted to the crowd, “One more! One more!” This was his last chance to break the world record (and Harrison’s Olympic record of 18.09). When he set up for his final jump, the gold medal already belonged to him. He would enjoy that later.

Taylor began his routine. Pump up. Stare. Clap. Scream. He could feel the energy surging through him. This was the time. This was the place. This was the record.

He ran down the runway, took off, and from the second he took off, you just knew this was it. Everything was in perfect sync. His first of three jumps was low and fast (“You don’t want to go too high,” former track star Carol Lewis says). On the second jump he glided. Then he took off for the third.

When he landed in the sand, it was clear. He was past the yellow line.

He’d done it. He’d broken the world record. He began to feel that surge inside.

And it lasted for about one second. Then he looked back and saw … the red flag. He had fouled. In truth, he had fouled badly, his foot was way over the line. “I sort of lost where I was,” he admitted later.

The great Carl Lewis — Carol’s brother — likes to say: There are no long fouls. “I would hear people say, ‘Oh, I had a long foul,’” Carl Lewis says. “No you didn’t. You didn’t have a jump.” Christian Taylor’s foul isn’t a jump. But, maybe, it is motivation. He can do it. He knows he can do it. “Those,” he says of the foul, “are the things that keep you going. … I still think, very soon, something special is going to happen.”

Oh, by the way, we should not just overlook the fact that Christian Taylor won his second straight gold medal, becoming the first triple jumper in 40 years to repeat, and the first American to do it since 1904. The disappointment of not breaking the record faded quickly and Taylor cried for joy a little on the medal stand. Olympics only come along every four years. And world records — well, you can break those anytime.

“He’ll get it one day,” Jonathan Edwards tweeted after the competition. “Great champion and a real gentleman.”

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