Host nation China has high expectations of success in the men’s long jump at the Beijing World Championships. We catch up with Randy Huntington, the American coaching legend charged with delivering home success on the runway inside the Bird’s Nest Stadium.
Veteran coach Randy Huntington says his role is crystal clear.
“As coaches we are dream weavers. As coaches that’s what we do – we help athletes reach their dreams.”
After almost four decades in the sport, Huntington has more than kept his side of the bargain, guiding Willie Banks to beyond 18m in the triple jump (albeit wind-aided) and, most memorably, Mike Powell to his gravity-defying world record 8.95m long jump at the 1991 Tokyo World Championships.
Now based out of the Beijing Sport University National Training Centre, the Michigan native guides a quartet of China's elite long jumpers, three of whom are set to feature at the world championships in the city.
A slick communicator with outstanding technical knowledge, Huntington's first found major success coaching US triple jumper Sheila Hudson – who he guided to the US record – before he coached Banks (the “Bouncing Barrister”) and Powell to a brace of Olympic silver medals and a pair of world outdoor titles.
PAST PUPILS: Sheila Hudson, Willie Banks and Mike Powell were all coached by Huntington
Huntington’s coaching reputation became so strong that he even worked with ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and briefly with former French Open tennis champion Michael Chang, along with a string of top American footballers and basketball players. Yet for much of his career, the itinerant Huntington has remained loyal to track and field, his first love and main passion.
Before taking up his current position with the Chinese Athletics Federation in 2013, he coached at colleges in the US and spent a period coaching in South Korea. Chiefly overseeing sprints and horizontal jumps, his role in the far east has more recently become a lot more defined, and he now largely focuses on coaching China’s top long jumpers, including his world championship-bound trio. The most prominent athlete in his group is world indoor silver medallist Jinzhe Li, who in 2014 jumped a personal best of 8.47m, which placed him third in the world for the year. Also in his group is gifted 18-year-old world junior champion Jianan Wang, and 8.14m (indoors) jumper Changzhou Huang.
“They are talented and it is just a matter of time before they figure it out,” Huntington says of his charges. “My approach to the long jump is a little different to many coaches. I try to make the guys fast first and then get them to adapt to that speed.
“Many Chinese athletes have great low velocity power but not great high velocity power. We are in the process of getting them to exhibit that high velocity power.”
Huntington is excited by his fab four – which also includes Xinglong Gao (8.18m), the Asian Games bronze medallist who did make the worlds team – and he believes the quartet possess real potential.
MEDAL GLORY: At his last global champs, the Sopot world indoors, “Sonny”Li won silver with a best jump of 8.32m
The “leader of the pack” is Li, who is known in the group as ‘Sonny’. Last year he won the Asian Games in Incheon – a title to go with his impressive personal best – but Huntington says there is still work to be done with the 25-year-old.
“Sonny is an 8.47m jumper, but is prone to fouling. If he had his fouls count he’d be the most prolific long jumper in the world. Sonny is a great competitor and loves to compete, but the acquisition of the skills needed to be a true professional has been a difficult road for him. It is going to take 8.50m to win it [the world champs] and we have to be prepared to go there.”
Huntington is also excited by Wang – known as “Eddie” – who set a stunning area junior record of 8.25m in Shanghai earlier this year. The American coach believes Wang's decathlon background gives him a broader skill set, making him technically very adaptable. He is, Huntington says, a special talent.
“He, along with Li, already run as fast as Mike Powell did in his prime. Eddie is really bright, a good student, and considering he and Li have both had hamstring issues this year they have both jumped well.”
VERSATILITY: “Eddie” Wang (centre) has a pole vault personal best of 5m
Even with such a talented group, language and cultural differences still present difficulties. Huntington speaks little Mandarin, and although he works with the aid of a translator, communicating can still be a tricky process.
“Trying to understand a sub-language [filled with athletics terminology] within a language and transferring that from English into Mandarin and back out is difficult,” he admits.
With Beijing looming, Huntington hopes nothing has been lost in translation and that his athletes fire on all cylinders in front of a passionate home crowd.
“My first goal is try to put all three in the final. It is lofty goal because usually only one country, the USA, ever does that in men’s long jump. Then the aim is to get them to place top eight, and I’d like to put one, if not two guys on to the podium. The ultimate goal is to clean up the podium, although the chances of doing that are just one per cent.”
And should one of his athletes strike gold in Beijing, Huntington believes that it would rank above the achievement of guiding Powell to that world championship-winning, world record jump of 8.95m 24 years ago.
“It would [rank higher] because of the language problem. That is what makes it a much harder coaching job.”
It is clear talking to this missionary of an athletics coach that if it weren't hard, it wouldn't be worth doing.