Tuesday, July 07, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Quiet leaper learns about limelight

Leader sports editor

World-class long jumper and sprinter Jeff Henderson isn’t used to a lot of attention, and isn’t even comfortable with it, but he’s learning how to handle it with the help of his coach, Al Joyner.

Henderson, who finished second in the USA Championships in Eugene, Ore., two weeks ago, and who has the two longest non-wind aided jumps in the world so far this year, got a small taste of the kind of spotlight he can expect if he continues the trajectory he’s on.

Henderson came home last week after the meet in Oregon, and immediately received one media request after another from local outlets. He left on Sunday to begin training for the Pan Am Games in Toronto that begin July 17, but not before being the guest of honor at a community wide send off party on Saturday.

“I’m not really into all this,” Henderson said on Saturday, pointing to the throngs of people filling up the yard and adjoining lots to his parents’ house in McAlmont. “Coach has told me it’s just something that’s going to happen, so I’m just trying to go with it.”

Henderson, who won the USA championships in 2014 and has ultimate goals of breaking the world long jump record and winning an Olympic gold medal, is aware that Saturday’s party will pale in comparison to the national and international attention he’ll receive by achieving those goals.

“I know it’s going to come and I’m ready for it,” Henderson said. “Coach has helped me a lot in preparing for it.”

Henderson sat at a foldout table alone to eat a rare large meal, but was soon, perhaps out of his comfort zone, making the rounds. He greeted and talked with relatives, neighbors, high school friends and even some media.

He even stepped into the center of everyone’s attention when his niece Ciara Hall, one of the top 10-year-old sprinters in her hometown in Oklahoma, challenged him to a race.

After faking a start and laughing while Ciara charged towards the finish line, Henderson joked that he had to get her tired to beat her. But even that didn’t work as Henderson gave up three quarters through the race while trailing.

After the Pan Am Games, Henderson will go back to the Olympic training center in Chula Vista, Calif., to prepare for the world championships in Beijing that runs from Aug. 20-31. A world championship win in China leading into an Olympics year will likely place Henderson squarely as the favorite in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and bring the added attention that comes with being at the top.