Unbeaten this season, long jumper Jeff Henderson has been one of the breakout stars of the 2014 campaign. SPIKES tracks “Jumping Jeff’s” tear-tugging rise to the top.
Since racing his five older siblings as a youngster on the streets of North Rock, Arkansas, Jeff Henderson always knew he was fast. Yet when asked of one of his earliest track and field memories, he plumps for a far less glorious moment.
Racing over 400m aged “14 or 15” he tore into the task with gusto opening up a huge lead on his rivals until the lactic acid kicked in around 300m. Suddenly pain gripped his body like a vice. He struggled to maintain any forward motion. His race dramatically unravelled.
“I think I slowed to a walk and I was crying the whole way in,” admits the unfailingly courteous Henderson, who wisely after his one-lap meltdown switched his focus to the shorter sprint and the long jump. It proved a smart move.
Aged 25, Henderson is no newbie to the track and field scene. Back in 2009 he jumped a wind-aided 8.19m and the following year he competed for the US at the World Indoor Championships in Doha.
His quiet progress continued last season when he leapt to an impressive new personal best of 8.22m to finish second at US nationals, but the catalyst for his breakthrough season came after he upped sticks from Stillman College in Alabama and moved west to San Diego to be coached by jumps legend Al Joyner in August last year.
He has not looked back.
Henderson competing at the 2010 Doha World Indoor Championships
So far 2014 has been a riot for the modest Henderson who romped to the US title with a mighty 8.52m (this was beyond the legal wind limit for record purposes, so his official PB is 8.43m set in the same competition). He has so far proved invincible on the 2014 Diamond League circuit with a 100 per cent winning record at the New York, Lausanne and Glasgow meets.
Yet, the improvement has not come about by chance, and it has required Henderson to adopt a more professional approach in ever facet of his life.
“He [Joyner] changed my eating habits,” admits the 2013 NCAA Division II long jump champion. “When I first arrived I was overweight at 200lbs and [as a consequence] I kept jarring my ankle during training,” he admits.
He ditched the cupcakes, candy and cheesecake from his diet. Energy drinks were replaced with water – “one day after drinking energy drinks I got a full body cramp that was so painful I started to cry” – and he shed 20lbs from his frame.
Late nights have also become a thing of the past, as he focuses on the correct amount of rest and recuperation. Meanwhile, technical improvements have also contributed to his outstanding form.
“My coach has great communication skills and makes it so much easier for me to understand my work on the runway,” adds Henderson. “I’m more of a visual learner and he has shown me how to do things better as both a jumper and sprinter.”
He has proven unbeatable on the Diamond League circuit this season
The coach himself has been hugely impressed with Henderson’s progress.
“Jeff is very patient with learning the proper way to train and listen to his body,” explains Joyner. “He is becoming a real student of his craft. He is blessed with a real gift for long jumping and sprinting and he will show that in the next couple of years.”
In case you’re confused by the references to sprinting: this season the Arkansas-born athlete clocked a handy 6.58 for the 60m, and reached the semi-finals in that event at the ultra-competitive US Indoor Championships.
He also has a strong 10.18 PB for the 100m – and is convinced he can go quicker.
“Next year I plan a lot more competition in the 60m and 100m,” he adds. “I think I can run a sub ten-seconds [100m]. The more speed I have, the better the long jump is going to be.”
His success in 2014 has been nothing short of phenomenal in an event craving a true superstar following the retirement of four-time world champion Dwight Phillips last year.
Whether Henderson is the man to fill that gap only time will tell. However, should he do so, it will be against a backdrop of tragic personal circumstances.
While finishing high school he received the devastating news that his mum, Debra – then aged in her early 40s – was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Her condition has since deteriorated to the point where she no longer recognises Henderson – her youngest of six children.
Shortly after the diagnosis Henderson left the family home to study at Hinds Community College in Mississippi. It was a brutally tough period.
“I was still young at the time and didn’t really know what was going on,” recalls Henderson. “My nan told me I should go to college, but it was really hard to focus on my school and track because every day I was thinking of my mum. At any time I would just break down and cry. My mum had been a huge support. She attended all my track meets and football games. It was immensely hard.”
The athlete himself was also managing the personal challenge of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). He found high school demanding, but more latterly during his time at Stillman College he “figured out” how to overcome ADD.
“To make studying easier for me I just had to make sure I read more than anyone else,” he explains. “I just had to study way more than other people to reach a certain standard.”
Today he still makes sure he reads every night and is an enthusiastic reader of history books.
But it is creating his own piece of athletics history, which is his primary goal in future.
Flying high at the Glasgow Diamond League in July this year
He hopes to end his campaign with a hiss and roar at the Continental Cup in Marrakesh and has already more than half-a-eye on next year’s World Championships in Beijing and the Rio Olympics.
Coach Joyner is massively enthused by his athlete’s potential: “I think Jeff Henderson is a name the world will remember for a long time to come. I believe he can break barriers that people never thought would happen.”
For Henderson himself he has more basic targets “I just want to have fun and jump far.”
Both of which the US athlete is fulfilling each week, in what has proved a remarkable unbeaten season. So far...