At Rio 2016, the identity of the Olympic triple jump champion was the same as it had been at London 2012. Yet something about Christian Taylor was different.
As a high schooler, triple jumper Christian Taylor set state records and won gold at the 2007 World Youth (U18) Championships. Competing for the University of Florida, the Georgia-native won his second consecutive US collegiate title in the triple jump in 2011. He then added the national title to secure a spot at the Daegu World Championships, where he won gold with 17.96m, the best jump by any man all year.
Just 21-years-old, he looked unstoppable. The reality was different.
“I got to Daegu and found my groove,” Taylor recalls, “but really we started missing so many training days because of constant pain.”
Don’t go changing
The pain was in the knee of Taylor’s left leg – his take-off leg. Rana Reider, who had recruited him to Florida and now coached him professionally, knew he was a “very talented” jumper on “both legs”. Switching to a right leg take-off had been mooted, but was too big a risk a year out from the Olympics.
“Luckily we made it one more year, made it to the Games, and won the Games,” Taylor says.
His 17.81m was good for gold at London 2012, but it was short of the standard he was striving towards.
The pain continued, but Olympic gold provided a compelling argument against switching take-off legs.
“If something’s not broke why fix it? That was really the mentality,” says Taylor. “I just brushed it off.”
Yet his progress stalled. “It seemed like I was so focused on staying healthy that I couldn’t even think of going any further.”
Things came to a head at the 2013 Moscow World Championships, where Frenchman Teddy Tamgho won with 18.04m. Taylor had no response and was fourth with 17.20m.
“I either had to hang it up or find something different. And that’s when we switched legs.”
Taylor switched immediately. At the Brussels Diamond League, his very next meeting, he went out to 16.89m taking off of his right leg.
Moscow had left him “very down … very frustrated”. He had to learn to jump off a new leg and had to reconnect with his sport, which he did by competing in 400m races in 2014. Aside from developing his all-round athleticism – “to be an athlete, you have to be able to run” – the racing appealed to him.
“The excitement of chasing someone or being chased, I think in human nature, that’s just something we thrive off,” he says. “I tried to use the 400m as a way to continue having fun in the sport. I lost that.”
Back in the groove
The new Christian Taylor was in full display at the first meeting of the 2015 Diamond League season in Doha.
In a classic contest, he and Cuban Pedro Pablo Pichardo both jumped over 18m – the first competition in history where two athletes had gone beyond that mark. Taylor went out to 18.04m, improving a four-year-old PB which had been set with a different take-off leg. Though it was only good for second (Pichardo achieved 18.06m), Taylor was competitive and relishing the battle.
Pichardo’s strong form continued. Taylor could not relax. He recorded three further 18m+ jumps in 2015, the best in Beijing, where he won his second world championship title with 18.21m. His new take off leg had propelled him to the second best jump in history.
“It’s very exciting, for a show and also personally, to push yourself to these limits,” he says. The dream of a second Olympic title was alive.
History made, history sought
Pichardo and Tamgho – the only other active athletes who have gone over 18m – were injured in 2016. Though Taylor enjoyed memorable battles – most notably at the US Olympic Trials, where he was beaten into second by Will Claye – there was no consistent rivalry. Yet history was waiting.
At Rio 2016 he jumped 17.86m – the best jump of the year – for gold. He became the first man to successfully defend the Olympic triple jump title since Viktor Saneyev’s ‘three-peat’ (‘68, ‘72, ‘76), and the first in history to win titles off different take-off legs.
“It’s been quite a journey in a short period of time,” he reflects. “To be back on top is very special.”
Taylor now wants the world record and back-to-back world titles, which no man before him has achieved.
“I want to be the first,” he says, with visible excitement. He already is.