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Will Claye keeps Rio hopes alive in triple jump prelims

EUGENE, Ore. -- Life could have turned out a lot differently for two-time Olympic medalist Will Claye. The long and triple jumper was born in Arizona in 1991 shortly after his parents migrated from Sierra Leone in West Africa to the United States, where his mother pursued her doctorate. Had his parents not left the country, Claye says, he easily could have been born in Sierra Leone near the start of its 12-year civil war, a war in which boys his age were forced to be child soldiers.

"I was able to escape that. It always makes me grateful to my parents that they were able to do that," Claye said, adding that it gave him a different respect for his parents. "It showed me how strong my roots are. ... It definitely makes me grateful to be competing for the United States. I don't take anything for granted."

You can't take anything for granted when qualifying for the Olympics. Claye won bronze in the long jump and silver in the triple jump at the 2012 Olympics -- the only Olympian to medal in both events in the past 80 years -- but he won't get the chance to repeat that in Rio. Despite finishing in the top three of the long jump at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials Sunday, Claye did not make the U.S. team in that event because he had not reached the qualifying mark of 8.15 meters in the past year.

He had missed the qualifying mark by just one centimeter. Which is, he said, "about a toenail."

"It kills me to be eight centimeters off the world record, so a centimeter? I would ask for a re-measurement," said Christian Taylor, the 2012 Olympic triple jump gold medalist and former roommate of Claye's. "I think we would call it a rookie mistake. You've got to take care of that [qualifying standard] business before you get to the trials. You don't want to leave it to the end.

"He's not a rookie. This guy is a two-time Olympic medalist. He's been to the highest stage, and I think it's definitely a learning experience for him."

Claye left the track that day unsure whether he would be on the U.S. team.

"I was confused just like you all were," he said. "My coach was confused, everyone was confused -- until we talked to the people at USA Track and Field and they said that there was no chasing the qualifying mark before the Olympics and that I was not going to be on the team."

At least not in the long jump. Claye still can qualify in the triple jump, which is his favorite of the two events.

While he was frustrated by not making the long jump team, Claye said he met with his first track coach that night and sorted it out. After praying over the matter, Claye focused on the triple jump.

Claye has been bothered by back and toe injuries in the past year -- a big reason he didn't make the long jump qualifying standard -- and did not have a great performance in Thursday's preliminary round, finishing ninth with a mark of 16.37. That was roughly two feet shy of Taylor's first-place jump. Still, it was enough to advance to Saturday's final.

Just as important, Claye also has reached the triple jump qualifying standard, and easily bettered it by more than two feet at 17.56, third longest in the world this year.

Claye said that as difficult as the long jump can be, the triple jump is harder. You have to jump three times, and in the first two jumps, you are landing on the harder track rather than the soft sand of the pit, which cannot be easy on the feet, ankles or knees.

"If you don't do it right, you will get hurt all the time," said Claye.

Even if Claye had qualified in the long jump and is able to qualify in the triple, he said he is unsure whether he would have attempted to medal in both. There is only one day off between the events in Rio compared to a three-day gap in London.

"It would have been something I would really have had to think about," he said. "You have long jump prelims one day, the finals the next, a day off, then triple jump prelims and the finals. That's hard on the body. It's something my coach and I would have to sit down and see if I was fit to do that. I'm getting older now."

Claye is 25, proud to have represented the United States in London and hoping to do so again in Rio. But he said he still has many more years of competition ahead and would consider jumping for Sierra Leone, which has never won a medal at the Olympics.

"I feel like it would be great for that country to have the type of caliber athlete that I am," he said.