Tuesday, August 09, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Henderson after history

By RAY BENTONLeader sports editor

Al Joyner, the 1984 Olympic triple jump champion and coach of U.S. long jump champion Jeff Henderson, is expecting greatness to emerge this weekend in the men’s long jump at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He also thinks his pupil, Henderson, a native of McAlmont, will be atop the podium when medals are handed out.

The preliminary round begins Friday morning, with finals set for Saturday afternoon.

Henderson already won an historic U.S. championship and Olympic trials last month, and is among the favorites in a very strong field to win Olympic Gold.

“Jeff has always been an extremely good worker with tremendous ability to focus,” Joyner told The Leader from his home in California on Monday. “But I’ve never seen him so focused. I go down there tomorrow, and I’ve been talking with him. It’s clear to me, he has not finished what he set out to do. That Olympic gold medal has been on his mind for three years, and he’s determined now to go get it.”

The American field of long jumpers is stronger than ever before, as evidenced by the results of this year’s trials in Eugene Ore. It was the first time three competitors cleared 28 feet in the same competition, with Henderson’s 28-2 1/4 topping them all. But that’s not all. The top seven finishers jumped distances that would’ve won the Olympic gold medal in 2012.

“That right there is the statistic that tells you how strong the American jumpers are right now,” Joyner said from his home in California on Monday. “That is an amazing stat. Seven guys jumped far enough to win gold four years ago, and four of them had to stay home. I think these guys are going to push each other into realms never before seen, and I think Jeff is the most talented one of the group.”

Greg Rutherford of Great Britain is the defending Olympic champion. He won as the hometown crowd favorite in London in 2012 with a jump of 27-feet, 2 3/4 inches.

The world record is one of the oldest at 25 years old, set by Mike Powell in the 1991 world championships at 29-feet, 4 1/4 inches that year in Tokyo.

Joyner not only believes that record is in danger, but thinks something previously unheard of could happen.

“I would not be surprised if we saw 30 feet,” Joyner said. “The British jumper is a great jumper and there are a few others around in other counties, but the American team is something special. I think they definitely have it in them to go 1-2-3.

Henderson has a connection with both teammates. He and trials runner up Jarrion Lawson will both be representing Arkansas. Lawson’s hometown is Texarkana, Texas, but he was the NCAA long jump champion for the Arkansas Razorbacks this year.

Joyner competed in college for Arkansas State, and is familiar with the strength of the Razorback program.

“Arkansas has a legendary track program and everybody wants to go to Arkansas to be among the best,” Joyner said. “But to be best, you got to be from there. Jeff is Arkansas. He’s the real deal.”

Mike Hartfield is a current teammate of Henderson with Joyner’s jump club. Hartfield finished fourth in the trials, but third-place finisher Marquise Dendy suffered an injury and will not compete in the Olympics.

Joyner says that’s going to be an advantage for Henderson and Hartfield.

“I think it will help them relax,” Joyner said. “They’ll be out there jumping with their training partner, so it’ll be like practice. I think it will definitely help take some of the pressure off.”

Like the week of the trials, Henderson declined to be interviewed so he could maintain focus on jumping only, but as an Olympic champion himself, Joyner shed some light on what Henderson experienced during opening ceremonies Friday evening.

“I tried to prepare him for that, told him to relax because he would be on his feet a long time,” Joyner said. “Beyond that, though, that opening ceremony is really the final thing that says, ‘this is not a dream anymore.’ This is it. It is here and now. It also brings home the point that you’re not just there for yourself anymore either. You have a deeper understanding of what that American flag means to you, and gives you a strong sense of that; I’m about to do something that’s bigger than myself. It really impacts you in that way, and I thank God I live in the USA.”

Joyner was not only a champion athlete, he also coached a champion in his late wife Florence Griffith-Joyner, who still holds the women’s 200-meter world record she set in 1988. Joyner has said before that Henderson is the same type of elite athlete that his wife was, and he reiterated that on Monday.

“I’m flying down there tomorrow and we’re going to start preparation,” Joyner said. “The last person I put on that podium was a legend. By the time it’s all said and done, the second one I put up there might have done something legendary, too.”