Olympic Gold had been the goal for three years, and Jeff Henderson was one jump away from letting it slip away Saturday evening in Rio de Janeiro. But Henderson, a McAlmont native and U.S. champion, did what champions do. He breathed deep, visualized the winning jump and executed it, beating South Africa’s Luvo Manyonga by one centimeter with a leap of 8.38 meters, and becoming the first American men’s long jump champion since 2004.
There was a long delay between the previous jump and Henderson’s final one, so he added a little something to his usual pre-jump routine. He stood with his back straight, eyes closed, and twirled his hands forward as he visualized landing somewhere beyond 8.37 meters.
He then crouched and rocked back and forth three times; tapping his right foot on the ground twice each time as he moved his right leg back and forth in front and behind him. On his forward leans, he’d shake the tension out through the tips of the fingers, before finally leaning way back and taking off towards the pit and Olympic glory.
He appeared to know he had beaten Manyonga’s distance, even if only by a centimeter. When he saw the distance officially posted, he sprinted about 100 meters in celebration before calming down to watch the last two jumpers of the evening. And there, even more drama took place.
NCAA champion and Arkansas Razorback Jarrion Lawson’s feet appeared to land a few inches beyond Henderson’s mark, but officials spotted what replay confirmed. Lawson dragged his hand in the sand almost two feet behind where his feet landed. Long jump rules are to measure the nearest distance from the launch stripe that any part of the body touches down in the sand.
When Lawson saw his official distance posted, he and his coach protested the spot, but to no avail.
Henderson’s coach, the famed 1984 Olympic triple jump champion Al Joyner, employed some special motivational tactics for Henderson at the Olympics. He gave his long jumper his own Gold medal, and told him not to give it back until he had his own.
Henderson, ever confident despite his very quiet demeanor, gave it back before the finals.
The relationship with Joyner helped propel Henderson onto the international scene. Joyner noticed him as an independent in an event in Albuquerque, N.M., in 2013, and thought he saw something special.
Henderson won the U.S. championships in 2014, and the Pan Am Games in 2015. He had a disappointing World Championships after the Pan Am Games, but the goal was always the Olympics.
He became an Olympic favorite after winning an unprecedented U.S. Trials in July, beating out six other competitors who all jumped far enough to have won Olympic Gold in 2012.
At Rio, Henderson didn’t match his jump at trials, which was 8.6 meters, but didn’t need to. He took the lead with his very first jump of 8.20 meters, but failed to improve on that with three successive jumps.
Meanwhile, the lead changed hands five times as Lawson, defending Olympic champion Greg Rutherford and Manyonga traded it back and forth.
Henderson was in fourth place as he prepared for his fifth jump. With it, he moved into bronze position by tying Lawson’s mark of 8.22. Since Henderson had the earliest next-best jump of the two, he would’ve received bronze if nothing else changed.
Manyonga overtook Rutherford’s leading mark of 8.28 with a jump of 8.32 on his fifth jump, then extended that lead with an 8.37 on his final jump.
All he could do was watch as Henderson beat that mark.
Henderson’s Gold medal was number 999 in Olympic history for the United States team. The women’s 4x400-meter relay swim team won number 1,000 about a half hour later.
Henderson’s long jumping career could be over. At 27 years old, he has only been a part-time jumper this year, splitting jump training with visiting NFL camps as a potential wide receiver. He is also an elite sprinter, finishing with the fifth-fastest time in the U.S. Indoor 60-meter championship this year, and has had a lifelong dream of being a professional football player.
Henderson received two callbacks from the Kansas City Chiefs for private workouts this year, and has told The Leader before the Olympics that he will likely report again sometime after Rio.