Having won world and Olympic triple jump titles all before the age of 23, Christian Taylor's steady march to greatness faltered last year when he finished down in fourth at the Moscow 2013 World Championships. He tells SPIKES all about the “slump” – and why his wake-up call might just be the best thing for his career.
Teddy Tamgho took the plaudits in Moscow for sealing world triple jump gold with that mighty 18.04m leap. Meanwhile, the deposed world champion left the arena a deflated fourth. Out of the medals, and some 0.84m down on the fabulous Frenchman, Christian Taylor had done something very rare, and lost a major competition.
A world youth triple jump champion in 2007, the Georgian-born athlete had almost nonchalantly collected ten All-American NCAA Division 1 titles, including three NCAA crowns. Two US titles followed, not to mention the world title in Daegu and Olympic gold in London.
In late 2012, Taylor moved from his Florida training base to the very different surroundings of Loughborough in the heart of England, following his coach, Rana Reider. Although he finished the 2013 season as the overall Diamond League winner, he couldn’t quite produce the same fizz as the previous two years.
Taylor competing at the adidas Grand Prix in New York last May.
He finished 2013 third in the year-end rankings – having been top of the pile in 2011 and 2012. So how does Taylor, 23, assess last season?
"I was definitely not pleased with it," Taylor tells SPIKES. “I’d been successful so quickly, that once you get to that level it becomes the expectation.
"I don’t like to make excuses. It would be easy to say the move [to the UK] interfered with things. For me there is no reason for the performance [in Moscow]. It was down to my mental state. I don’t think I was as hungry as I needed to be.
"I got through to the final in Moscow and it was like 'now I’m the final, it is anybody’s' – whereas in Daegu and London, when I reached the final, it was like 'I need to win this'. Having the need, and wanting to win, are two very different things.
"I think once you get to the top, to keep that motivation and fire going becomes a little difficult. So sometimes to have a wake-up call is good, because it helps relight that fire."
The Moscow wounds took time to heal. Taylor describes being in a feeling of "disbelief" for some time after the champs. He said for two months he felt he was in "a slump".
"I was smiling, but just really going through the motions," he says candidly. "My energy was down. When you are number one and you are winning, it is sunshine every day. Now, after I got hit by this fourth place train – it was a complete shock for me.
"Every day I was thinking about Moscow. If I was on a school visit talking, my mind was in Moscow. It was like I was constantly distracted."
It took a conversation with his coach to shake him out of his lethargy. He told him to focus on the positives, like winning the 2013 Diamond League, and not dwell on Moscow. Coming from a man so close to Taylor, it had the desired effect.
He managed to drag himself from his Moscow gloom, and returned to training refreshed and invigorated. The sunny optimism of the old Taylor had returned.
"It was not an easy battle, but I was so down because I care so much,” he says. “Now I have this chip on my shoulder which I take into practise every day. I think it is what is going to take me to the next level."
Now into his second year in Loughborough, and more familiar with the British way of life, the 6ft 2ins longboard–loving American has honestly reassessed every element of his life in an effort to "put all the pieces of the puzzle together".
One area he admitted he has neglected in more recent times is his core work, which now takes a much more prominent role as part of his training.
"Core has once again become a really big thing," he says. “It was something I used to be good at, but once I hit the top level it was like: 'I’m fit, I don’t need it anymore'. I did it for the beach body, but I didn’t do it for the daily performance. I’m now hitting core exercises hard.
"The other day, after one core session I was so exhausted, all I could do was sit in the foetal position. My coach comes over, starts pointing and laughing and because a lot of students are around watching at Loughborough, they all start laughing too."
He hopes the core work will aid hip stability, and this will help to keep him triple jumping in a straight line, like "a rock skipping across the water".
Besides his triple jumping goals, where a successful Diamond League defence is the target, the multi-talented athlete (who also has a long jump PB of 8.19m) harbours another quiet ambition for 2014: making the US 4x400m squad for the inaugural IAAF World Relays in the Bahamas in May.
A 45.34 400m athlete (set in 2009), Taylor is no one-lap slouch. He was close to his personal best when running a 45.37 in his season opener at the Florida Relays in early April, leaving several 400m specialists behind him. Rumour has it, the triple jumper put down a 43-second-something relay split the next day.
"I’ve got nothing to lose. I’m having fun again, like during the 2011 World Championships and London Olympics. I’m young and I need to be having fun. I can have fun by experimenting with being not just a triple jumper, but by running 400m."
Looks like he might have to change his Twitter handle too, from @Taylored2jump to @Taylored2jumpnrun...