“Don’t lose faith,” Claye messaged, “and just work through it.”
On May 20, Claye’s heart had broken for Taylor when he saw that Taylor had ruptured his Achilles’ tendon, an injury that will sideline the two-time reigning Olympic gold medal triple jumper for the Tokyo Games. In the form of encouragement, Claye shared something just a few people close to him knew, something — until now — he had chosen to keep private: In late 2019, he too had torn his Achilles’ tendon.
“I also told him if I could do it, he could do it, which was probably weird for him,” Claye said. “Like, ‘Oh shoot, so you tore your Achilles’, too?’ But yeah. I mean, that’s why I didn’t compete last year.”
A full Achilles’ tear is an existential threat to the career of a triple jumper, whose competitive movements comprise sprinting fast, exploding off the ground, landing hard and then leaping again — twice. Claye has emerged from his recovery intact and, he believes, stronger than ever. He will reveal the fruits of grueling rehab at the U.S. Olympic trials, which begin Friday in Eugene, Ore. Claye will enter as the favorite at Hayward Field and probably in Tokyo, too, but the path has been harder than almost anyone knew.
Claye returned to competition last month at the Golden Games, winning with a triple jump of 56 feet 3¼ inches. The mark fell short of his personal best by about three feet, but it might have been one of the most meaningful of his career.
“That is an injury that they say is really the end of people’s careers,” Claye said. “So I just was just grateful to be able to get back out there and compete, get a win and really just show myself that I still got it.”
Among casual Olympic viewers, Claye may be best known for the leap he made after his silver medal performance in Rio de Janeiro. He hopped into the stands and proposed to fellow Olympian Queen Harrison, now his wife.
Claye is one of the greatest triple jumpers in history, yet he cannot claim to be the greatest American of his own generation. Claye has two Olympic silver medals and has reached the podium at four world championships in the triple jump, plus his London 2012 bronze in the long jump. None of them are gold almost entirely because of Taylor.
Taylor, Claye’s college teammate at Florida, swept the past four major global meets, the 2017 and 2019 world championships and the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Claye finished second in all four. In 2019, Claye leaped 59-6, the third-longest triple jump in history and second longest since 1995 — to Taylor’s 59-10½ in 2015.
Still, Claye viewed Taylor’s injury not as an opening but a disappointment. Their rivalry, he said, is built on “love and respect.”
“It just wouldn’t be the same to go out and not be competing against him,” Claye said. “It’s kind of just been the ‘Christian Taylor and Will Claye Show’ the past decade. And so, yeah, it’s going to be different. And I’m going to definitely do my part to hold it down for the U.S. And hopefully he’ll be back next year and we’ll get back to those great performances that we pulled out of each other.”
Claye and his coach, Jeremy Fischer, have told Taylor they will help him in any way. They know intimately what he faces.
After Claye won silver at the 2019 world championships, he planned to wind down before building back up for the 2020 trials and Olympics. On Thanksgiving night, he was playing pickup basketball with friends and family. He jumped to grab a rebound, and when he landed he could not feel the ground. He thought somebody had kicked him in the back of the left leg. When he turned around, no one was there. “This is weird,” he thought. “What just happened?” He tried to walk it off, but the feeling of a strong charley horse in his leg would not dissipate.
Claye flew home to San Diego that night, and tests confirmed his worst fears: a full rupture of his left Achilles’. He asked the surgeon, John Shank, to do whatever he could to allow him to compete in Tokyo. Shank told him it would take a record-breaking recovery and that the triple jump stressed the Achilles’ like no other action. Claye believed he could do it. For inspiration he studied the recovery of Kobe Bryant, one of his athletic idols.
Claye shared the news only with his parents, his coach, a few training partners and a half-dozen close friends.
“I didn’t want anyone to project their fears on me,” Claye said. “I just didn’t want to have any outside influence on the way that I was thinking or feeling or just the energy. I just wanted to be able to go through myself.”
In January 2020, Claye required a small procedure to remove a screw that had come loose. When his cast came off, he couldn’t walk. He attacked his rehab in a way that testified to both the rare physiology and intense drive of an Olympic champion. Within 2½ months, Claye started to run and bound.
“It was almost scary because the doctors and the trainers were like, ‘Man, you’re coming back,’ ” Claye said. “ ‘We don’t know how you’re moving this fast and how you’re doing the stuff. But you look good.’ ”
As Claye progressed, the coronavirus went from distant threat to global calamity. In late March, he felt relief that the postponement of the Games would give him a full year to recover. He is convinced he could have made it. But even if he had returned, Fischer said, earning a spot at trials would have been a challenge
“I don’t put anything past Will,” Fischer said. “But it would have been a medical miracle.”
Even with less urgency, Claye pressed forward. He worked with Fischer and Jonathan Pierce at Kinetik Performance, a rehab facility in San Diego.
Claye performed exercises as Pierce manipulated parts of Claye’s toes and feet using both his hands and large bands. He used laser treatment and a direct current machine — “Like the most aggressive, crazy [stimulation] machine you’ve ever seen,” Pierce said — to reboot the nerves in his foot. Claye would spend three hours a day in the facility, four times a week, plus more for weight training, staying late into the night on weekends if he had to. Eventually, Pierce gave Fischer and Claye keys to the place.
“We all knew what the goal was,” Pierce said. “The goal was to come back and win the Olympics. It was never really verbalized, but it was apparent. Somebody like Will is not doing this for second place.”
Claye balanced his rehab with his creative impulses. He produced a video with Red Bull about his life, called “Elevate,” about growing up in an underserved neighborhood in Phoenix. A hip-hop recording artist, Claye used writing and performing music as an outlet. In “Kill Will,” he imagined himself as Uma Thurman’s character in the movie “Kill Bill,” in which she journeys from paralyzed to a fighter at full force.
When Claye took the track at the Golden Games, few knew what it meant to him. Claye is a thoughtful, laid-back person, but at meets he morphs into the swaggering persona Fischer calls “Ill Will.” For his first four jumps, that joy and flair was absent, replaced by doubt he had never felt before on the track.
“It almost didn’t feel like I was at a meet,” Claye said. “I didn’t feel like I was competing until, like, my fifth jump. I was in fourth place. And I’m like: ‘Hold on, Will. You need to get your head in the game.’ ”
Claye has focused on the triple jump, but he also has entered in the long jump at the trials. If he emerges unscathed from the triple jump after the first weekend, he will try to make the team in the long jump, too. If Claye feels sore after a successful triple jump, Fischer said, they will be content to start preparing for Tokyo.
Claye, who will be 33 by the 2024 Paris Games, intends to keep jumping after Tokyo, but this still could be his final Olympic cycle for the United States. Claye long has dreamed to compete for Sierra Leone, where his parents were born before they left to be educated in Europe. (They both moved to Arizona, where they met, for graduate school.)
“It’s definitely something that I want to do,” Claye said. “I’ve already gotten so much support from Sierra Leone. They support me like I already compete for them. I want to be able to give hope to a lot of people and my heritage and where my family comes from. I’m the first generation born in America.”
First, Claye will try to complete a remarkable, largely unknown comeback. If not for the upheaval of 2020, he may not have been able to compete. He has done almost everything a triple jumper can do, except one more goal.
“To come out with a gold, I think, it would give a lot of people hope, and it would give myself hope,” Claye said. “We all go through things in life. That was the darkest moment, darkest moments of my life, going through that injury. So that gold would mean a lot.”