Nobody wakes up one morning, leaps out of bed and yells, “Hey, Mom, I want to be a triple jumper!”
For that matter, no kid decides to triple jump on his own. Generally, the sport has to find you.
I was a football player in high school and ran track just to keep my speed right — to increase my quickness. But one day at track practice, my coach, Larry Todd, had us all doing bounds — different jumping exercises designed to increase speed and explosion. He looked at me and said, “Will, you’re just a natural triple jumper.”
I had no idea what that even meant. I just nodded.
I’d done long jump since maybe sixth or seventh grade, but that’s just sprinting down a runway, hitting the board and taking one jump into the sand. Now coach had me doing different triple jump drills, which included all of these different bounds. It was a little out there, but my coach was right: I was natural triple jumper. Not too long after learning that the sport existed, I ended up winning a state championship my freshman year of high school.
And at that point I realized, I guess I am pretty good at this triple jump thing.
Next thing you know, I was headed to the University of Oklahoma on a track scholarship. It was a great opportunity, but I didn’t really take track seriously as a career path. I had no idea there was such a thing as a professional track athlete. After winning a national championship my freshman year at OU, I learned so much more. I started getting approached by agents and shoe companies, and learning about the European circuit.
Before too long, this random sport my high school coach dropped me into became my job.
Believe it or not, there is such a thing as a hardcore triple jump fan. At a meet where guys are inching in on the world record, people are pumped up. You hear the noise after a huge jump. But overall, triple is a pretty obscure sport. For every devoted follower, there are way more people who don’t even know what triple jump is, much less understand its intricacies.
So because what you don’t know about triple jump is probably “everything,” let me break it down using old school “Hop, Skip, Jump” terminology.
First, here’s what the whole thing looks like:
Now, let’s break that down, starting with:
1. The Hop
Under normal conditions, I take 18 steps from my start point to the board, but different circumstances might mean changing on the fly. If the track surface is fast or a tailwind is blowing, 18 steps might actually lead me to foul — even a toenail over the end of the board means the jump isn’t valid. So I have to move back a foot or two. On a slower track or into a headwind, it’s the opposite.
You can’t look down at the board while running, because that messes up your body position. We constantly practice staying tall and upright at the board. If you don’t, one of two things will happen: If you’re lucky, you just won’t jump very far because your center of mass is in the wrong position. If you’re unlucky, gravity will push you forward and instead of landing on your feet, you’ll fall on your face. Visual cues come in handy, but at the end of the day, muscle memory is king. I’ve done thousands of repetitions.
I’m a speed jumper, meaning I’m trying to run as fast as I can on my approach, keeping as much speed as possible throughout my jump by being quick off the ground once I’m into it. In the air, it all goes to the laws of physics. Just like an ice skater in a spin opens up when they want to slow down, you want your legs extended out so you can slow down your rotation and be in the air as long as possible, preparing to land for the next phase. You can see my right leg stretch all the way back, then again forward while my left stays long and relatively still. No unnecessary motion.
Distance traveled: 20-21 feet
2. The skip
When I strike the ground again, that begins the “skip” portion of the jump. Because I take off for the hop with my right foot, by rule I have to come down again on my right leg for the next phase. When I land, it’s with the force of 15 times my body weight.
That’s one reason this is probably the hardest phase of a jump.
When my right foot makes contact with the ground again, I want to get back in the air as quick as possible. My right foot drives my body forward, and as I pull it back my left leg stays up. I’ll pull my legs together slightly, then explode them out, ready for my left foot to hit the track. At the same time, I bring my arms back, ready to throw them forward in the last phase to maximize my momentum. If your timing and rhythm aren’t on point, it’s going to hurt. Bad. With all that force, landing wrong could blow out your knee or roll your ankle. Or you might fall on your face, which is painful and embarrassing.
To create the necessary explosion, I do plyometric training, bounding and ladder work. (You’ve seen football players stepping in and out of those squared-off ropes on the ground, right? Those are ladders.) Break it down slowly, and it really does look just like a kid skipping on the playground … except covering a lot more ground. This is when it feels like you’re flying. You’re in the air, holding your body as close to one position as you can.
Distance traveled: 18-19 feet.
3. The jump.
My left is my dominant leg, so I use it here to make my last phase my strongest. I drive my left leg down and move my right leg forward, trying to keep my momentum going the right way. Finally, I reach both legs out in front of me. In a perfect world, your body is at a 90 degree angle, legs facing straight out and arms sweeping down past them. Pushing the arms down helps your legs come up, and that’s how you go land the sand.
You’re measured from the first board to the furthest point back where your body touches the sand. If you hit your butt in the sand with your feet stretched out, they mark it from your butt. That’s why it’s so important to keep your torso vertical with your legs forward.
That move, by the way, requires some serious core strength.
Distance traveled: 21-22 feet on a good jump.
I’ve won national and world championships, and have a silver medal from the London Olympics. But if I want a world record — 60 feet, set by Britain’s Jonathan Edwards in 1995 — I need to add at least another 22 inches to my personal best of 58’2″. That’s about seven inches to my first phase, and 10 each to my second and third (leaving a little wiggle room). That means more time working on technique and speed. And I have to get even stronger.
It takes thousands of repetitions to master the rhythm of triple jumping, and to gain the muscle memory, but there’s an incredible amount of training off the track, too. I’m not a very big guy — 5’11”, about 160 lbs. — but I lift like one. I can squat about 500 lbs., where most guys my size might do 300, tops. A typical strength day includes squats, box step ups, deadlifts, bench press, pull ups and a whole bunch of core. That’s just one day. We’ll also do sand workouts, bounding and running up hills. And you’ve seen people run stadium steps? Sometimes we’ll just hop all the way up … on one leg.
But the toughest workout I’ve ever done is the “two minute drill.” My coach has me do this about once a week during our base training season (about two-and-a-half months) until we start competing, and it lays me out every time. You start off maybe ten feet behind the board, then jump, land in the sand and run back to your start. Over and over, for two minutes. Time goes so slowly. About a minute in, your body starts to break down, but you have to push through and keep your form tight. It’s brutal in the moment, but totally worth the pain. If you can maintain proper technique when you’re tired, you can definitely do it when you’re not.
Triple jump is hard on the body. I’ve dealt with all kinds of injuries, most recently coming into the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, where I had two degenerated discs in my lower back brought on by weight lifting. I couldn’t train for over six weeks, which cut my prep time from about three months to three weeks. It was the first championship event where I didn’t win a medal, but it was humbling and made me hungrier for the Olympics next year.
Technically, nobody has ever executed a perfect jump. It’s impossible. There’s always something you can do better. But you’re always chasing it, searching for that true sweet spot in your technique. The closest I’ve come was in 2012, at the World Indoor Championships. It felt effortless. When I landed, I went crazy just because I knew how good it felt. I didn’t even look back to see if there was a foul.
But sure enough, they put that red flag up. Toe foul, just barely over the edge of the board.
It probably would have been a world indoor record.
There’s always something you can do better.