On 5th May 2017, Tyrone Smith set a Bermudian long jump record of 8.34m. It’s been seven years since the 32-year-old set his previous personal best of 8.22m. He tells his story.

“Let’s have some fun”

I was born in Bermuda. One of my earliest memories is running in the school races. I remember winning out of my whole grade and beating some of the older kids. My mom still has that blue ribbon from that day. Then we moved to the States.

My dad was in the military, but we didn’t have a lot of money. I always wanted to play sports, but sports cost money. With athletics there was a youth programme that Hershey’s chocolate company started. My neighbour was training for it and she was like ‘my dad said that if you wanna work out with me, you can come with us to the track’ and I was like ‘let’s do it, let’s have some fun’. That’s pretty much how I started.

I did it for two years and then, as the life of a military kid goes, we moved again. Where we ended up moving to, there wasn’t a track club or anything like that, so I didn’t do it anymore.

“Please, please, please let me jump”

I didn’t do any more organised sports until I got up to high school and I wanted to play American Football. All the coaches were trying to convince me to take up track as well and said ‘it’ll help you get faster for football as well’. So I’d play the football season and do the track season, and here’s the funny part: I was pretty terrible.

They put me in for everything except for what I wanted to do, which was jumping. They had me running the mile, the 800m, in the 400m. And I was absolutely terrible at those events. I don’t think I ever cracked 2:20 in the 800, 2:25 maybe. I kept begging ‘please, please, please let me jump!’

Tyrone Smith competes in the 2015 Pan American Games (Getty Images)

In my senior year the girls’ coach at my high school was teaching one of the girls how to triple jump and I said ‘hey I wanna try that’. None of the other guys were doing the triple jump, so if I learnt how to do it, I could do it for the team. He was like ‘ok’ and taught me how to triple jump.

“Hi coach, my name is Tyrone, I’m a long jumper”

I was decent at the triple jump – not great – but decent enough. I ended up getting an academic scholarship to university, so I picked a school that wasn’t a top tier athletics programme, Missouri University of Science and Technology, so that I could try to walk on to the team just to keep having fun with the triple jump.

Every coach I had, I’d always ask to do the long jump, and they’d never let me do it, but that second year at university, we got a whole new set of coaches. They called everyone in for individual interviews and I went up to the coach – his name is Bryan Shiding, he’s still one of my coaches to this day – and I was like ‘hi coach, my name is Tyrone, I’m a long jumper’ and he was like ‘okay’. Just like that.

We started training and that year I went from like 6.70m to 7.45m.

“I wanna be an Olympian”

I didn’t always want to become a professional athlete, I had other dreams. I wanted to become a pilot, a military pilot for the air force, but there were things that prevented it from happening. Right when things were falling apart there, I started jumping further.

Tyrone Smith competes in the long jump at the London 2012 Olympics (Getty Images)

In 2004, I was watching the Athens Olympics and I saw Dwight Phillips win. And I got emotional. I said to myself ‘I wanna be an Olympian. I wanna do that.’ I remember getting back to campus after the ’04 Olympics and I said to a couple of the other guys ‘I’m gonna go to the Olympics’ and they literally just laughed.

But that’s when I decided that I wanted to try make it. The next year I was a little injured, but then the following year – this is 2006 – I went from 7.45m to 7.92m. We got closer to 8 metres, but I didn’t have any idea how to continue beyond that. 

“Holy ...., Dwight Phillips is my training partner”

I saw on Facebook one of my fellow competitors, Chris Gillis, had moved to Houston, Texas and I was wondering why, so I hit him up on Facebook.

He said ‘Carl Lewis is starting this track club’ and so I packed up my car the day after graduation and moved to Houston without having ever met or talked to Carl. They offered to let me do a try-out, watch me run, watch me jump, stuff like that. I did it all and they said ‘ok you can be part of the club.’

I was coached by Tom Tellez, who was Carl Lewis’ coach, I had an agent, and lo and behold – this is like three years after I saw those Olympics Games – I walk to practice for the first day and Dwight Phillips is there! I was like ‘holy ...., Dwight Phillips is my training partner’. It was this whole group, these blue chip athletes and here I was, this little guy from Division II no one had ever heard of.

Tom got me over 8 metres that first year, I went to Beijing for Bermuda and became an Olympian [note: Smith is now a three-time Olympian].

Tyrone Smith competes in the long jump at the Rio 2016 Olympics (Getty Images)

“I was so hungry”

Competing on the international circuit was surreal. I had a lot of coaches over the years, who told me that I was not a good athlete and that I couldn’t do this or wouldn’t do that. So when I got to this stage, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder.

I was so hungry just to beat people. I know I wasn’t going to win all the time, because these guys were jumping like 8.30s and 8.40s, but I just wanted to beat people to show that I belonged there, that I belonged on the circuit.

The most important lesson I learnt is that on any given day you can win. I think that’s one of the best parts about track and field, you never know what’s gonna happen. That’s why we race. We don’t just say ‘ok who has the season’s best, that’s the gold medallist for the year.’ That’s why we get into competition with each other, because you never know. Over the years it’s really cool to see myself progress and stay fighting. I was the guy that no one had heard of and now I’ve been doing it for almost nine seasons.

I’ve been jumping without a contract for a couple of seasons now. I didn’t really embrace it last year, I just wore all blank costumes, but this year I thought ‘you know what? If I get to wear whatever I want, I might as well wear whatever I want!’ [cue the Dragon Ball Z outfit in the header]. It’s great to have the option to be bolder. I also started working as a car dealer Monday to Saturday and train Sunday to Friday to take financial pressure away from the sport. Now I can jump stress-free, enjoy it a lot more and it's showing in my results.

“I want to be remembered”

Why do I continue doing it? Because I love it. It’s never been about the money, I’m doing this because I love it. I’m doing this because, like every athlete, I want to be remembered. I want people to know my name. I want it to be written down somewhere. You train so hard and for so long and ultimately, all you really want is a legacy, for someone to recognise what you know deep inside – that you are a great athlete.

Tyrone Smith carries the Bermudian flag during the 2016 Rio Olympics (Getty Images)

I normally go back to Bermuda a couple of times a year. I’ve hosted some camps for the youth, try to go back and do appearances. It’s an interesting island. Kids give up on sport really early. We have a lot of great youth athletes, but they drop off when it comes to training for the senior level.

I have always felt it as part of my responsibility to leave the state of the sport on the island in a much better position than it was when I began. We now get some financial support, none of that existed when I started out. It’s starting to pay dividends. We have some kids right now that are in university that I know will be on the big stage in three or four years’ time and it’s really exciting to see that.