Long jumper Brittney Reese takes flight in pursuit of Olympic medal

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She could have taken “no” for an answer from her well-meaning high school coach, who simply didn’t want her to spread herself too thin. But even at age 15, “no” was a word Brittney Reese didn’t want to hear.

“I had just finished up basketball season and my track coach was trying to find a long jumper,” Reese recalled. “He wouldn’t let me jump at all, because I had to do the 400 meters, and I was already doing the high jump. I kept begging him, asking him could I try, and he kept telling me no. I finally convinced him to let me try, so I went out there and jumped 17 feet my first try. He couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘Do it again.’ “

So she did.

Ten years later, Reese, 25, is training for her second Olympics and is the favorite to win the gold medal in London. Reese easily won the long jump at last month’s Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., with a jump of 23 feet, 5 1/2 inches.

Reese will be joined in London by second-place finisher Chelsea Hayes and third-place finisher Janay DeLoach.

“I can say it feels good, hearing that I’m the favorite, but when I was in college, I was the favorite to win the bronze and I went out there and got fifth,” Reese said, recalling the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the disappointment of not making it onto the medal stand.

“I don’t worry about people saying I’m the favorite. In the long jump, it only takes one jump. It only matters who jumps the farthest that given day. My thing is just to go out there and not worry about it, and just have fun and try to do my best.”

Redefining her Olympic dream

When Reese first began to dream of competing in the Olympics, it was basketball, not track and field, that she saw in her mind’s eye.

“I grew up watching the WNBA and Cynthia Cooper and Cheryl Swoopes, and my dream was to make it to the WNBA and go to the Olympics,” she said. “But now things have changed. But I still succeeded in making it to the Olympics, so I can say that my dream has been fulfilled. I’m just blessed and happy to represent my country.”

A two-sport star in high school and college, Reese won the long jump, high jump and triple jump in the state championship meet while attending Gulfport High School in Gulfport, Miss. After spending two years at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, she was inducted into the school’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

Reese then attended the University of Mississippi, where she shifted her focus from basketball to track and field and began to succeed on a national level. In 2008, she won the long jump at the NCAA Outdoor Championships and was named the SEC Women’s Field Athlete of the Year.

It was the same year she met her role model, track legend and four-time Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

“It started out as one of those ‘I saw Jackie Joyner-Kersee‘ moments,” Reese said. “She’s been my idol for the longest. I wrote that I wanted to meet her, and it got back to one of her friends, and now she calls me and texts me all the time. She’s a real great person, and I’m glad that she’s on my side.”

As it turned out, Joyner-Kersee didn’t need much prompting to make contact with Reese. She knew exactly who Reese was.

“I’ve known about Brittney since she was in college playing basketball, before she started jumping,” Joyner-Kersee said. “When I go to the big meets now, I’m always looking to see who’s going to be our next big jumper. You study different athletes, and from afar, I admired what she and her coach were doing.”

One of Reese’s proudest accomplishments was topping Joyner-Kersee’s world indoor record at the 2012 World Indoor Championships in March. Reese jumped 23-8 3/4, the longest indoor jump since Joyner-Kersee jumped 23-4 3/4 18 years ago.

“I think the world of her as an athlete and as a person,” Joyner-Kersee said. “She’s always been a tough competitor, but she’s really blossomed. She’s learned how to put winning jumps together when it really counts, and she’s not letting outside pressures get to her. I reminded her, ‘You do this because you love doing this. People are going to expect great things from you, but they can’t expect any more than what you want for yourself.’”

Improving with experience

Joining Joyner-Kersee in praise for Reese’s development is her coach, Joe Walker, who has worked with Reese for the past six years.

“When we recruited her out of high school, we thought she had a lot of talent, but after about five or six months, I realized that I had more than just good talent. I had someone really special,” Walker said. “Athletically, she’s a fierce competitor. As a person, she’s really caring and humble, easy to get along with. You don’t always see that in the same person — you usually get one or the other. She is a rare blend of great humility and great fierceness.”

Walker says they have a great relationship and have talked about the pressures Reese will face at her second Olympics, where she will be expected to win gold.

“She was a novice and a rookie at her first Olympics, so her experience should stand her well when she goes into this Olympics,” Walker said,

“But one of the things everybody forgets is it’s just another championship. It’s like the Super Bowl. What if you only talked about the 2008 and 2012 Super Bowls, what about the ones in between?

“The world championship is really the same meet as the Olympics — we’re just going to call it the Olympics this year. She’s won two outdoor and two indoor world championships, so she’s been on this stage before, it’s not something that will be radically new to her.”

Pursuing a medal

Reese’s jump of 23-5 1/2 at the Olympic trials was her personal best, but Reese couldn’t deny she’s eyeing the world record of 24-7, held by Galina Chistyakova of the former Soviet Union, who set the mark back in 1988. But, Reese maintains, earning a medal would be reward enough.

“In 2008, I was devastated to finish fifth,” Reese said. “To get a medal this time would mean a lot to me. It honestly doesn’t matter what color it is, I just want to get on the podium. I’ve been representing my country for a long time, since 2007, and there’s nothing like it. When you stand on the podium and see your flag, the American flag being raised, its like an awe moment. You want to bust out in tears because you’re so excited.”

Reese says she’ll do her best to contain her excitement, and keep a dry eye, when she walks into Olympic Stadium at Olympic Park in London, where the women’s long jump will be held Aug. 7-8.

“I’m doing a lot of sprinting and endurance to try and stay in shape,” Reese said. “It’s six jumps, and you don’t know what place you’re going to fall in the order, so basically I need to keep doing distance and speed work, jumps, and stay in the weight room to try and stay strong.”

Like her role model, Joyner-Kersee, Reese now hears the same thing from young girls interested in the sport — that she’s a role model to them. Reese finds it flattering and keeps her advice simple to the generation of jumpers she expects to follow her.

“Track is a technical sport, it’s not just about running and jumping,” Reese said. “It’s a hard sport, but it’s a fun sport. Anything is possible, you just have to put the work in, and believe in yourself.”

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