Tuesday, July 05, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Henderson wins trials, Rio next

Leader sports editor

Jeff Henderson’s coach, Al Joyner, said nothing was going to deny his star pupil’s dream of making the United States Olympic team in the long jump.

Nothing did. Not a Razorback phenom, not an NFL star, and certainly not an equipment crisis.

The McAlmont native and 2007 Sylvan Hills graduate soared more than 28 feet Sunday in Eugene, Ore., to win the U.S. Olympic Trials, beating out Arkansas Razorback Darrion Lawson by a half-inch for first place.

The jump launched Henderson into the 2016 Games in Rio De Janeiro that begin next month. The men’s long jump will be Aug. 12-13. Henderson already has a Gold medal in international competition. He won the Pan Am Games last summer in Toronto, but the Olympic stardom has been his dream and goal for years.

Henderson, who spoke to The Leader on Monday from the Portland airport, insists that winning wasn’t the goal for the weekend, but is happy about his personal-best performance.

“I just wanted to get top three,” said Henderson. “The fact that I won, that makes it even better.”

Henderson took the lead in the preliminary round on his very first jump of 27-feet, 11-inches (8.5 meters), and no one beat it the rest of the day. He was four inches short of that mark with his first jump in the finals on Sunday, and his second jump Sunday was a disappointing 26-4.

His third jump left little doubt about his Olympic status when he set a personal best 8.59 meters, or 28-feet, 2 1/4-inches, the fourth-best jump in Olympic Trials history.

Lawson also went over 28 feet on his fourth jump, which was 28-1 3/4.

Making Team USA for the Rio games has been Henderson’s goal for the last three years, but he didn’t get there without some obstacles.

Henderson, who is also an elite indoor sprinter, packed his sprinting shoes instead of his long jump spikes, and didn’t realize the mistake until he arrived in Oregon from his home and training facility in Chula Vista, Calif.

But things turned out OK.

“I just had to go with what I had,” Henderson said. “And really, I felt like the sprint spikes helped me get off the board better. Sprint spikes are very flimsy, but I liked how they felt off the board. So hopefully I can get Adidas to modify the sprint spikes a little bit and I’ll continue to use them.”

While Henderson won the Olympic Trials, he will enter the games officially as the third longest jumper on the team this year. Lawson’s jump on Sunday is officially the longest jump in the world this year, because it was with a 1.8 meters per second wind. A jump with a wind of 2.1 or more counts in competition, but does not go into record books. Henderson’s jump on Sunday was with a 2.9 wind aid.

Marquis Dendy, who finished fourth Sunday but made the team because the third-place finisher Will Claye did not have an Olympic standard jump this year, has the third-best wind-legal jump this year at 8.42 meters. Marquis Goodwin, a 2012 Olympian and wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills, had the longest jump this year until Sunday.

He won Silver at the Pan Am Games, but finished a disappointing seventh in the trials.

Henderson’s teammate and training partner, Mike Hartfield, finished fifth and is the first alternate in case one of the three qualifiers cannot compete.

Americans performed most of the top jumps in the world this year. Henderson’s performance on Sunday is unofficially the longest jump in the world this year. Henderson, Lawson, Goodwin, Dendy, Hartfield, Claye and Jarvis Gotch have 11 of the Top-15 wind-legal jumps.

Athletes from South Africa, Australia, China, South Korea and Great Britain have leaps of at least 8.2 meters and could contend for the medal podium, but Joyner says Henderson’s toughest competition will be from his USA teammates.

“We have the best long jumpers in the world,” said Joyner. “The thing about Jeff is, right now, he’s not thinking about anything or anybody else besides Jeff Henderson. Because he knows that if he does his best, nobody can beat him.

“His best is the best in the world. It’s all a matter of putting it all together at the right time. We had planned this three and a half years ago. The only wrench in our plan that whole time was the world championships last year. It just wasn’t our day, but it was the greatest learning tool Jeff could have asked for.”

At the 2015 championships in Beijing, Henderson struggled to get his steps right. He had two jumps of 8.3 meters or longer, but stepped over the board on one, and took off from almost 30 centimeters behind the board on the other, landing for an official distance of 7.95.

Great Britain’s Greg Rutherford, who is also the 2012 Olympic champion, won the 2015 world championship with a distance of 8.41 meters.

Henderson said Joyner was right about his main concern.

“I worry about myself,” Henderson said. “I feel like I’m on the rise. I just did a personal best, but I just feel like I can go farther.”

Joyner is giving Henderson this week off, but he will return to training camp on Monday. The coach and former Olympic triple jump champion had another date besides competition dates he wanted Henderson’s fans to know about.

“The medal ceremony is Aug. 14,” Joyner said.