Tuesday, June 28, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Jumping Jeff rests for Trials in Eugene

Leader sports editor

Two years removed from winning the United States Outdoor Championships, and almost a year since winning Gold in the Pan Am Games in Toronto, world-class long jumper Jeff Henderson prepares for the biggest meet of his life when he hits the runway on Saturday and tries to become a member of the United States Olympic team.

The U.S. Olympic Trials for track and field begin Friday, and the men’s long jump qualifying round starts at 11:45 a.m. in Eugene, Ore.

2016 has already been a whirlwind year for the 2007 Sylvan Hills graduate and resident of McAlmont. After years spent as an IAFF supported athlete, he finally received a sponsorship contract from Adidas after winning the Pan Am Games. It wasn’t an NBA superstar level contract, but it does pay Henderson $70,000 a year to wear Adidas apparel when he competes.

He has also been on a tour of sorts through the NFL, visiting several training facilities and working out for teams interested in his speed. He has had multiple workouts with the Kansas City Chiefs, who seem to be the team most interested.

Henderson hasn’t jumped the distances in 2016 that he did in the two previous years. He’s only competed in two major events this year, and has been around 26-feet in both of them. He jumped more than 28 feet to win the Pan Am Games.

Henderson declined an interview so he could remain focused on training, but his coach, 1984 Olympic triple jump champion Al Joyner, was available, and has no concerns about Henderson’s short distances in recent meets.

“There were a couple factors involved in that,” said Joyner. “He had put on weight to go around to these NFL teams. He was up over 195 pounds. They were also meets where we weren’t as concerned as much with winning as we were working on some new techniques. We’re focused now. We have our game plan, and he is, as the old saying goes, back down to his fighting weight.”

For the final week leading up to the trials, Henderson is on what Joyner calls “active rest”. The tough part of training over and his body is gathering strength for the big event.

“It’s not a case where he’s doing nothing but resting,” Joyner said. “It’s just that the grind is over. He’s doing light exercise, eating right, focusing mentally. It’s just at this level his body has to be rested to be at full strength. That’s just the nature of it at this elite level.”

If anyone knows what it takes to peak at the right moment, it’s Joyner. Not only an Olympic champion himself in 1984, he also trained his late wife Florence Griffith-Joyner, who won three Olympic Gold Medals and set two, still unbeaten world records in the 1988 Olympics. He is also older brother to two two-time Olympic heptathlon champion and world record holder Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

Joyner was a star athlete at Lincoln High School in East St. Louis before going to Arkansas State University and winning six NCAA triple jump championships, three each in indoor and outdoor competition.

He says Henderson is at that same level of talent that he, his wife and sister were.

“He is the best pure athlete I have trained since my wife,” Joyner told The Leader in a previous interview.

Joyner knows Jeff’s distances so far this year probably won’t land him a spot on the team, but he’s confident his charge is peaking at the right time.

“We’re not worried about winning,” Joyner said. “This is not the Olympics. This is just the trials. We want top three, but it’s probably going to take jumping up around 28 feet to get top three. But he’s ready to do it. He’s the best long jumper in the world. He just has to focus and get it when it counts. Those meets earlier didn’t mean anything. This is the biggest event of his life and he’s ready. Right after it’s over, there will be an even bigger one waiting.

“As kind of an Arkansas guy myself, I’m proud he comes from Arkansas, and I hope the people of central Arkansas will rally around and support him. They might just have an Olympic champion.”