Tajay Gayle among all-time greats after 2019 breakout

By Noel Francis for the IAAF October 26, 2019
Tajay Gayle Tajay Gayle

From the moment Tajay Gayle took off to when his feet kissed the sandpit, everyone who witnessed the jump knew, once the white flag came up signifying a legal effort, that something amazing had occurred. The scoreboard matched expectations, as the mark of 8.69m appeared to set tongues wagging inside the Khalifa International Stadium and around the world.

Meet Jamaica’s newest star who produced the jump of his life, the tenth best of all-time, to win the men’s long jump at the World Athletics Championships, Doha 2019.

The multi-talented Gayle hails from August Town, a tough inner-city community in Eastern St. Andrew, where life can be a daily struggle. Track and field saved him.

We are sitting in the lobby of the opulent Curve Hotel in Doha and the usually laid back Gayle uncharacteristically moves closer to the recorder and, like a history professor, spoke about his journey for 48 uninterrupted minutes.

Early trust in coach

It all started at Papine High School, the same institution that produced 2016 World U20 champion Tiffany James. However, the soft-spoken Gayle, unlike his celebrated teammate James, was a late bloomer who competed in several events before finding his niche.

“I started as a sprinter,” said Gayle. “I did not take the sport seriously my first three years in high school. I was not training properly; I was going there to have fun. However, Coach Shanieke Osbourne saw something in me that I did not see. From then I trusted her and did what I was told.”

He first competed at the Jamaican High Schools’ Boys and Girls Championships in 10th grade contesting the high jump. The following season he began to show a deep affection towards the long jump and added it to his range.

“I was always winning the long jump at our annual school sports day and perhaps that’s what Coach Osbourne saw and started to encourage me. I prefer the long jump over the high jump because the high jump is too technical and I don’t like to turn my back to stuff,” Gayle said with a chuckle.

Gayle failed to make either the horizontal or vertical jump finals at the ISSA Boys and Girls Championships in 2014. The following year, his final time competing at the championships, he bowed out showing his vast repertoire. “My coach told me that I can excel in any event. She pointed out that I am a very technical person and a fast learner and she wanted me to try the decathlon.”

After amassing 5987 points to finish seventh overall, he was quite happy to create history as the first male to contribute points for his school at the annual championships. Gayle highlighted that the performance that stood out for him in the gruelling contest, though wind-aided, was the 6.94m in the long jump.

2018 NACAC silver

After leaving Papine High, he enrolled at the University of Technology, an institution renowned for producing world-class athletes, but just like in high school, he began competing in the high jump. One day his watershed moment arrived, fortuitously.

“I turned up for practice and noticed that the high jump mat was wet. I turned to the coach and said it does not look like I am going to train today because there is no landing area. He instructed me to do some long jump practice instead. I went over and joined the group who were doing some twelve strides run ups. I remember jumping 7.29m that day which was a big surprise because my PB before that was 6.54m.”     

On 11 February 2017, Gayle joined the eight-metre club, but could not attain the qualifying standard for the London World Championships. Gayle developed into a fierce competitor in 2018 and after a fourth-place finish at the Commonwealth Games, he won silver at the NACAC Championships in Toronto where he leapt 8.24m, a then lifetime best.

The newly minted world champion had an auspicious start to his 2019 season winning his first four competitions. His first victory at the Grenada Invitational in April, where he cut the sand at 8.20m, came as a cameo appearance because he was in a race against time. “I only had two jumps, 8.04m and 8.20m and then I had to leave because I had a plane to catch. My flight was departing in three hours.”

Back-to-wins in China set the early 2019 stage

A month later, he travelled to China where he carved out two important victories, one at the IAAF Shanghai Diamond League and another 48 hours later at the inaugural Nanjing World Challenge meeting, which took place separately as a “street meet” at a local shopping mall. “This was the best meet for me,” said a delighted Gayle, who won off his last attempt with 8.21m.

“Everything about the meet was nice. The large crowd was very close, so you could feel the energy, the lights and music were just awesome. It was a great experience and I would like to jump at another street event.”

Ten days later at the Bauhaus-Galan IAAF Diamond League meeting in Stockholm, Gayle endured a chilling encounter that almost froze his soaring ambitions. “The Stockholm meet was very, very, very cold. I tried my best to take the conditions off my mind but it was too cold. I jumped a wind-aided 8.05m, finished fifth and strained a tendon under my right knee. That night my leg was swollen, and I was unable to walk freely. It took me over an hour to get to the physiotherapist downstairs, but thankfully a lady, who thought I was dying, stood by me the whole time until my physiotherapist came.”

Consistency continues with Pan-Am Games silver

A fast healer, Gayle recovered sufficiently to chalk up some solid performances including winning the Jamaican national title, his first after three attempts, followed by a lifetime best of 8.32m at the Müller Anniversary Games in London and a silver medal at the Pan-American Games in Lima, Peru, behind Cuban sensation Juan Miguel Echevarría.

“It was in Lima that I started to believe I could jump 8.40s and 8.50s,” Gayle stated.

“Even though it was cold and I was slightly loaded, I had a big jump which was ruled a foul by a toenail, but I didn’t let it get to me, I took the decision and moved on from there knowing I was right where I wanted to be.”

Training through the Diamond League final

The Diamond League final in Zurich served as a final warm-up encounter before the World Championships. However, Gayle admitted his goal was not achieving the lucrative prize. “I was never prepared to win that meet. My focus was Doha, and I was still loaded.”  

The 23-year-old spent the next three weeks practising the hitch kick technique and arrived in Doha with full confidence.

Troubles in Doha qualifying

His campaign almost ended prematurely as he only qualified in last place for the final. “When I jumped 7.89m, I started to get nervous wondering if I made the finals. I am near-sighted and so I could not see the scoreboard clearly. It was my close friend Henry Frayne from Australia, who came and told me that I had qualified.”

Notwithstanding, Gayle was grateful and promised a better showing in the next round. “Honestly, I am not sure what went wrong. My coach (Stephen Francis) and I had been practising some different flight techniques and landings recently. Maybe I was overthinking that part too much and forgot about my run-up as I made a few mistakes. I was happy to make the final though because I was going to give it my all even if I ended up pulling a muscle.”

With the mistakes in qualifying shelved, Gayle did not bother clouding his mind with executing all areas of his technique when he looked down the runway for his opening round. He concentrated on one thing only, which was the advice drilled inside his head by Francis. “Your run-up is the main thing; use your speed against them.”

“I was the third jumper, I expected to be first, and I told myself that I was going to get this on my first jump. I also did something out of character, I started to walk around and point to the crowd to get some vibes. Afterwards, I started talking to myself saying speed and power, speed and power. Then I took off.”

Feeling the speed

His first-round effort of 8.46m improved his PB by 14 centimetres and catapulted him into the lead. However, when he uncorked his 8.69m in the fourth round, he killed the competition stone dead.

“As a jumper, you feel the difference between jumps. On this jump, I felt the speed, I felt the last two steps and height and when I landed, I heard the crowd roar and I said this is a big one and did not even bother to look back. Afterwards, I did not try to prove anything by jumping again once I realised no one could challenge my mark, so I skipped my fifth and six rounds because winning was all that mattered to me.”

After his victory, a number of his competitors were singing his praises including dethroned world champion Luvo Manyonga of South Africa.

“Wow! I saw it coming,” Manyonga said. “I have been watching him throughout the season and he is so calm and collected. He is that underdog but when it comes to competition, he is just talking to himself, very composed and doing what matters. I was expecting something from him but not that far; it caught us all by surprise.”

Related items

  • Healthy, confident Andre Ewers ready to run faster than ever Healthy, confident Andre Ewers ready to run faster than ever

    Andre Ewers is encouraged that better days are ahead following his fast 100m run in Jacksonville, Florida last weekend.

    The 25-year-old Jamaican clocked 10.04s to win his heat at the JAC Combined Events Championships, making him the second-fastest Jamaican this year. Julian Forte’s 10.03 set two weeks ago in Kingston, leads all Jamaican male sprinters for 2020.

    The time was also an improvement on Ewers’ 10.10 run in Clermont, Florida, at the end of July that took the young sprinter closer to his goal in this COVID-19-impacted season.

    “When I started to compete again the goal really was to execute, have fun and get a good run in and knock the rust off,” Ever said Monday. “After that, I told myself that I believe I can run sub-10 the next meet possibly 10.0x if I can find one.”

    The time took him close to his personal best of 9.98 that he ran in Tampa, Florida, in May 2018 and is proving to be a boost to his belief that another sub-10 run is not far away.

    “I believe I’m capable of it but, unfortunately, this may be my last meet for the year due to everything going on and the difficulties in finding meets,” he said. “Now, my focus is on the Olympics next year and working hard to accomplish my goals.

    “Even though my ultimate goal was to run sub 10, I look at 10.04 as a blessing, given the circumstances and lack of resources I have right now. I’m honestly pleased with the time.”

    During his final years at Florida State University, Ewers progress was hampered by persistent injury. He now says those days are behind him, thanks to the work of his coach, Ricky Argro.

    “To prevent injuries, my coach makes me do a lot of different kinds of pool workouts,” he said. “My health right now is really good. I’m healthy and I’m thankful for that.”

     

  • Moments In Time: The race that made Elaine Thompson Moments In Time: The race that made Elaine Thompson

    Elaine Thompson-Herah looks a woman who is back to her fabulous best.

    Early in an Olympic year, she is already producing very fast times and all things being equal where injuries and loss of form are concerned, she should be challenging for two Olympic titles in Tokyo next year.

    Thompson-Herah, not unlike a certain Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, rose from relative obscurity to beat the world and this may be courtesy of another great Jamaican in the field of athletics, her coach, Stephen Francis.

    Who can forget the World Championships of 2015 when Thompson-Herah, then just Thompson, finished second in one of the greatest women’s 200-metre races of all time.

    Just a year earlier, Thompson’s best over 200 metres had been 23.23, but she had shown promise over 100 metres, clocking 11.17 in 2014, before lowering that to 10.84 at a meet in Eugene not long before the World Champions.

    It was something of a surprise that she would not be contesting the 100 at the World Championships, with Francis setting her up to run the 200 in Beijing, China.

    Thompson had not run that many 200s and while Jamaicans were quietly hopeful that she could get on the podium, it was not a certainty.

    In May of that year, Thompson had run 22.37, but while quick, it was slower than the times of The Netherland’s Dafne Schippers and the United States’ Candice McGrone, who had run 22.09 and 22.08 seconds respectively at a Diamond League meeting in Monaco.

    That is until eight days after that meet when Thompson ran 22.10 to be hot on their heels.

    On the 26th of August 2015, Thompson cruised through heat 4 in Beijing to win in 22.78 seconds.

    For someone, who a year earlier hadn’t broken 22 seconds, she looked good.

    But Dina Asher-Smith of Great Britain was quick, qualifying with a personal best 22.22, while Schippers looked smooth, shutting down long before she would end her heat in 22.58 seconds.

    The race was wide open.

    On August 27, Thompson showed she was in just as good a form as the 22.10 personal best she had run earlier in the year, clocking 22.13 to get the better of McGrone, who finished in 22.26 to march into the final with the quickest time.

    Schippers with 22.36 was also comfortable, looking like she could go a lot faster.

    Asher-Smith was faster too, stopping the clock at 22.12 seconds for yet another personal best.

    The following day, Friday, August 28, 2015, produced, arguably the most exciting 200 the world had ever seen.

    Thompson, was out of the blocks in a hurry, running a blinding curve to leave everybody in her wake coming off the curve.

    The time was going to be fast. Very fast.

    But Thompson wasn’t at her strongest yet and though she has never run faster, she faded toward the end, with Schippers, using her formidable heptathlon strength to close like a train.

    Nobody else was in the frame.

    Schippers was closing and Elaine began straining, just at the line, the Dutchwoman dipped, the difference was .03 of a second.

    Thompson was second in 21.66 seconds, Schippers was a World Champion in a championship record 21.63.

    Another Jamaican, Veronica Campbell-Brown, with a season’s best 21.97, was also on the podium. The time, though not as quick as Campbell-Brown had gone in her life, was the quickest she had gone in a very long time, the experienced legs of the many-time world-beater, finding a way to get onto the podium.

    Behind Campbell-Brown, were McGrone in 22.01, and Asher-Smith, in a national record, 22.07.
    Though Thompson did not win, the race signalled the birth of a star.

  • UTECH sports coaches in limbo as college navigates COVID-19 landscape UTECH sports coaches in limbo as college navigates COVID-19 landscape

    The contracts of all sports coaches, including head track coach Paul Francis and Stephen Francis, employed by the University of Technology (UTECH), have not been renewed for the coming academic year as the college moves to protect its staff and student population from possible COVID-19 infection.

    The pandemic has forced the school to suspend its sports programmes until it decides how many students they will allow on campus for the academic year set to begin on August 26, 2020. 

    Paul and Stephen Francis run the university’s track and field programme, and who under a Memorandum of Understanding with the university, also operate the MVP Track Club at the school’s Papine campus.

    The university informed the coaches by letter on Monday, Sportsmax.TV understands.

    However, the school said the move is temporary.

    “We have not made any final decision. We are waiting to hear from Intercol (Jamaica Intercollegiate Sports Association) and a directive from the Acting President (Professor Colin Gyles) in terms of how many students will be allowed on campus,” said Kamilah Hylton, the Dean of the Faculty of Sports and Science while speaking with Sportsmax.TV on Monday night.

    “We have to make decisions on how they (athletes) would train in a safe manner,” she said while explaining that the school will have to determine how athletes would function under existing COVID-19 protocols, meaning how many athletes would be able to train together, adhere to the required physical distancing requirements and other related safety measures.

    Hylton explained that depending on the state of the pandemic some contracts could be renewed as early as the second school semester.

    “Of paramount importance is the safety of the athletes. We have to ensure that we have the necessary resources to facilitate the safety of our student-athletes,” Ms Hylton said.

     Ms Hylton also confirmed that, so far, no new sports scholarships have been offered to student-athletes.

    As it relates to students who are already on scholarship, Ms Hylton said the school would maintain its obligations to them and they would attend classes as usual.

    “We are bound by contract, so those students would continue to be supported once they continue to meet academic criteria,” she said.

    Among other measures being taken by the school is the limiting of the number of students allowed to share dorm rooms on the campus. For now, only one student will be allowed to a room. 

    The college prides itself as being home to a number of Jamaica's world-class athletes.

    Former 100m world-record holder Asafa Powell, Olympic medalists Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Sherone Simpson were all members of the UTECH track programme.

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.