January 31, 2020
While baseball is a game of averages and football is played 60 minutes at a time, the long jump really is broken down by one simple column on the leaderboard, “Best.”
“Best” is the distance of your longest jump that day. That’s it! If the number you post in the Best column is higher than everybody else’s, you’ve won. It’s one of the things I love about my sport. You’re judged solely by your greatest work.
Recently, at the 2019 World Championships in Dubai, I came away with the gold medal and a Championship Record of 6.45 meters, a little over 21 feet. But I also had the second shortest jump of the competition. In fact, that was my first attempt. You want to talk about a rocky start. Sheesh!
But I knew, even after that terrible jump, that I still had an opportunity to put forth my best jump.
In the long jump, you initially get three attempts. After your third attempt, the top eight marks move on to the final round, and the competitors with those marks receive three additional jumps.
Now, the interesting thing is that of the eight who make it to the final round, all jumps are a part of the decision-making process. If you had your best jump of the competition on your second attempt, and that just so happened to be the best jump out of the six, then that is still your best for the day.
Indeed, like the sports mentioned before, my best was THE best for the day. My second and third best jumps were the 10th and 11th best jumps, respectively. That terrible first jump? It was the 41st best jump of the day.
If we averaged my jumps, it was comparable to an eighth place finish when compared to the leader board. But in fact, my overall average was the sixth highest average of all contestants. If only the top eight competitors move on to the final round of the competition, and we had gone by average, I would have been in ninth place and headed for the airport at the end of the third round. That's all interesting speculation but it all comes down to this:
In Dubai, my best was enough for the gold medal.
"It's amazing how often opportunity is disguised as hard work."
I’ve found some variations on this quote, but this is the one I’ve always heard, and the long jump is the perfect expression of how I view opportunity.
Like I said above, for each competition, you are only judged by your best number. I’m very fortunate to have posted good numbers in many of those boxes. But here’s the thing.
That’s not by accident.
That’s not luck.
I worked for those opportunities. I perfected my timing. I determined the ideal number of steps in my run. I practiced my form, my reach and my landings. I did countless box jumps and sprints and cleans and squats. I showed up time and time again to be prepared for my opportunity in each and every competition.
When you put the work in, you will have more opportunities. There’s just no getting around it. And the more opportunities you take advantage of, the more you, and everyone else, will see how you get it done when it matters most.
When your best isn't THE best
Winning a medal at the Paralympic Games, it takes dedication, it takes some commitment, it takes seriousness. It’s definitely not an environment made for messing around.
You have to go out there and compete to the best of your ability. You’re going against athletes from all over the world, and that medal means something. Getting on that podium, that means something for your country, for yourself, for your family. It’s an achievement. It’s a huge accomplishment.
At the Paralympic Games, the ultimate Paralympic competition, I have won a Silver Medal in 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. I’ve been to all the major international competitions since 2004, and I’ve won gold at every other competition.
Having the opportunity to go to Tokyo this year is very important to me. It’s a checkmark that I haven’t been able to put in that box yet. I want that opportunity. I want to know what that feeling is like, to stand at the top of the podium at the Paralympic Games with a Gold Medal around my neck and the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ playing over the loudspeakers.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m extremely proud of all four of those silver medals.
But I know I’d feel differently if I missed my gold medal opportunity because I didn’t prepare enough, or I didn’t apply myself. I didn’t train hard enough, or I didn’t do precisely what was outlined on the weight room regimen each day.
I know I’d be disappointed in myself if I ate junk food five or six times a week, didn't fuel my body properly, or if I didn’t get enough sleep the night before a competition. Those would be things I could easily look back on and say, “Hey, I need to work on that” or “That’s why I don’t have Gold.”
But that’s not what happened. I put in the work. My best in those four competitions was, on average, five inches too short.
Am I okay with that? No. The competitor in me is going to Tokyo, my fifth Paralympic Games, and I'm getting gold. I'm continuing to put in the work for another opportunity to do that. But can I live with that? Yes. But only because I know I put in the work, and I've taken advantage of my opportunities.
Incidentally, it helps that my lifetime best is the World Record 6.73 meters (22 feet, 1 inch). I know that in the entire history of the sport my best is THE BEST. (World Records deserve all caps. Don't you think?) But it all comes back to that simple principle of the long jump, rewarding our best efforts. Oftentimes our biggest wins in life are less about our averages than it is about putting forth our best effort when opportunity presents itself. So, put in the work, create those opportunities, and give it your best.