When you saw the success of Team USA’s youth movement in the 2012 London Olympic jumps last week, accounting for five of the eight medals won in those four men’s and four women’s events, you knew Christian Taylor, Will Claye, Erik Kynard, and Brigetta Barrett were young. But did you know how young?
To wit: In August of 2008, during the last Olympiad, Taylor was finishing a fine senior year at Sandy Creek (Tyrone, Ga.) High School in the triple jump (US#1 52-8), long jump (US#2 25-6) and 400 (US#4 46.60), with a pair of top-eight finishes at the World Junior Championships in Poland. He had won the World Youth triple jump as a junior. Claye, just a junior at Mountain Pointe (Phoenix, Ariz.), was not far behind Taylor’s marks, including a US#2 52-4.75 TJ, and his post-season included wins at Great Southwest and USATF JOs.
Kynard, a Rogers (Toledo, Ohio) junior, had made the 2008 Olympic Trials off of a 7-3.75 indoors and while he didn’t make the final in Eugene that June, he did muster 7-0.5 in qualifying there. Barrett, yet another junior (Duncanville, Texas), had been one of three girls from her state over 6-0 at Great Southwest. Both Barrett and Kynard finished second at USATF Juniors, but Barrett didn’t compete in Poland while Kynard didn’t make the final.
Taylor, Claye, Kynard and Barrett. Three of them still had another year of high school, while Taylor was headed to University of Florida for his freshman year. No doubt all of them hoped for NCAA success and probably had Olympic dreams in the backs of their minds.
But the 2012 London Olympic team? And making the finals in their respective events and earning gold, silver and bronze medals, with none of them older than Taylor’s just-turned-22? With all of them already among the top 10 Americans in history, save for Kynard, who’s just a centimeter away from joining that elite group?
In your dreams, folks might have said back then. But dreams sometimes come true much faster than expected, and so it was in London last week that Taylor and Claye gave Team USA a 1-2 finish in the men’s triple jump (with Claye also winning long jump bronze), and Kynard and Barrett both earned silver in their respective high jump events. It was clear that all of these athletes had a lot of talent and could possibly someday by national or international elites, but rarely have prep stars – beyond prodigies like Allyson Felix – risen up this fast. Each of the four were outstanding preps, but it’s not like they really threatened any high school records. All have improved tremendously during the past four years, however, going from being very good (if not truly great) preps to among the best collegians and young pros the U.S. has ever seen. And they each have many more years to get even better.
It was Taylor and Claye who gave the quickest indication after high school that they had London medal potential. Claye skipped his final semester at Mountain Pointe and enrolled at Oklahoma in time for the 2009 indoor and outdoor seasons. He claimed a Big 12 title indoors as he began to improve dramatically, while Taylor was doing the same at Florida. Taylor topped Claye for the NCAA indoor title, 55-8.5 to 55-1.5, both three feet beyond what they’d done in 2008, but outdoors it was Claye turning the tables at NCAAs with an even-better U.S. Junior record 56-4.75. In what would have been his senior year in high school and as he was just turning 18, Claye won six major titles, including the Pan Am Juniors.
Claye had an injury-plagued off-year in 2010, while Taylor improved to 56-4.25 and won the NCAA outdoor title. Then Claye transferred to Florida, joining Taylor, and both exploded in 2011. They continued to dominate NCAAs and inch toward the 57-foot mark indoors. Then at the outdoor NCAAs, they soared to PRs of 58-4.75 (Taylor) and 57-9.75 (Claye), though both were wind-aided. They were now contenders for the 2011 World Championships podium and both turned pro. They were rewarded in Daegu, with Taylor (the youngest jumper in the final) nearly beating the American record and assuming the global yearly lead with a 58-11.25 gold-medal performance, and Claye taking bronze.
While the biggest breakthrough came in 2011, Taylor and Claye still had to elevate their games for the pressure of the Olympic cauldron. But throughout 2012, they never really left any doubt they’d be ready, going 1-2 in the World Indoor Champs (Claye winning) and Olympic Trials (Taylor winning) and building their resumes in other meets leading up to London.
Taylor and his coach never had anything less than high expectations. “When I was recruiting him (to Florida), I sat him down and told him, ‘In four years, the goal is to be an Olympic medalist,’” said Coach Rana Reider to The Dayton Beach News-Journal (Taylor trained at Daytona Beach’s Embry-Riddle U. this past year). “That is what you can do if you stay on task and learn how to compete under not the greatest circumstances (tough collegiate schedule).”
And while Claye was super talented as well, the decision to head to Gainesville a few years ago was a key factor in his success. “Me and Christian have been going 1-2 for a long time,” Claye told USATF after they won their TJ medals. “We have a brotherhood, and jumping against your brother, you go harder than you do with anyone else. It feels like it is just me and Christian out there sometimes, you know. It is an awesome rivalry, and we definitely push each other and help each other.”
Few athletes displayed as much talent and potential as did Kynard as a prep, but he still wasn’t quite at the level of, say, a Scott Sellers and Andra Manson. But his progress since has been special. After that Trials experience as a junior in 2008, Kynard followed with US#1 7-4.5 indoors and #2 7-3.5 outdoors as a senior, claiming Nike Nationals titles in both seasons. He did all that with form that at times looked less than polished and one wondered what heights he could ascend to at Kansas State.
In 2010, as a KSU frosh, Kynard stayed at the 7-3, 7-4 level, indoors and out. But in February, 2011, he had his big breakthrough with a 7-7.75, becoming the third-best indoor collegian ever. Outdoors, he won the Drake and Texas relays, then the NCAA outdoor title before earning his Daegu ticket. Then earlier this year, he won his second NCAA outdoor title with a PR of 7-8 and that set the stage for his making Team USA at the Trials.
As the London final unfolded, Kynard’s talent was on display for all the world to see, as well as some daring. He clinched the silver with 7-7.75 on his first attempt, then duked it out with eventual gold medalist Ivan Ukhov of Russia by twice passing after misses to the next height, finally bowing out at 7-10.5.
While still getting the “raw” talent tag from the likes of NBC Olympics field event analyst Dwight Stones, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist himself, it’s clear Kynard is well beyond the jumper he was in high school.
“I was probably most impressed with his attempts at 2.38 (7-9.75) and 2.40 (7-10.5) as much as anything,” said his Kansas State Coach Cliff Rovelto in a press release from the school. “He’s come an awful long way in a relatively short period of time. We should all be very proud of him and what he did today.”
While calling it “the best second-place I’ve ever had,” Kynard was clearly at home trying to win gold in the world’s biggest meet. “Pressure doesn’t burst my pipes,” he told USATF. “I have faith in my abilities. No stage is too big.”
To the Cleveland Plain Dealer, he added, “I'm young and I’ll be around for a while. I'm going home with some hardware, so I can’t complain. I’ll be back. I’ll see you all in Rio.”
U.S. HJ teammate Jamie Neito called Kynard “the future and the present for high-jumping. He’s going to have an amazing career.”
Barrett was on a bit of a plateau in 2009, winning state and, in another meet, matching her 2008 season’s best with 6-0. But at the University of Arizona, improvement came immediately as she cleared 6-2.25 during her frosh indoor campaign in 2010, then 6-3.25 outdoors – placing third in both NCAA national meets. 2011 was even better, as she claimed both NCAA titles, won the World University Games with a PR 6-5, and took 10th in the IAAF World Champs.
To begin 2012, she repeated both NCAA titles, but she saved her first major PR for the best possible time, taking second in the Olympic Trials at 6-7. Now with her 6-8 in the Olympics, only one American in history, the aforementioned Lowe, has gone higher.
“I’m definitely thankful I have the medal, but it is really what comes with the medal that means a lot,” Barrett told USATF. “I know that God has brought me so far and I know where I started, so to be able to stand here and look back on the journey, that is what it really means for me. My mom is in the stands smiling and healthy, so it’s great.”
Said fellow American Chaunte Lowe, who was sixth in the Olympic HJ: “My performance was not great, but I am really proud of Brigetta. She is a really great talent and I am glad that she was able to stay poised on this type of a stage.”
NBC’s Stones has called Barrett’s potential “unlimited” and said she’s got what it takes to be the “next world-record holder.”
The same can be said of all four of these Team USA high-flyers.