Tiombé Hurd, the American record holder in the women’s triple jump and a six-time national champion, may be too old, too hurt and too blind to compete. But she’s lacing up her spikes and sprinting down a corner lane inside Prince George’s Sports & Learning Complex in hopes of qualifying for the London Olympics.
After each practice jump, Hurd stops at a video camera on her way back to the starting line and studies the screen. The 38-year-old suffered an injury last year that robbed her right eye of almost 80 percent of its sight, so she is training to be able to do her event in the dark. She critiques her every body position so that it doesn’t matter that she barely can see.
Hurd has spent the majority of the last four years fighting ailments, but she has spent a lifetime tying her identity to what her body can do. Thus, she will be in Eugene, Ore., when the U.S. track and field Olympic trials get underway Friday, trying to squeeze one last drop from a career close to being wrung dry. This is her final crack at returning to the Olympics, the pinnacle of her sport, and this quest carries long odds.
“I wish I had more time,” Hurd said.
Hurd’s always had rotten vision. The Seattle native and current Upper Marlboro resident wore thick, Coke-bottle glasses when she was four years old to correct 20/1000 sight in her right eye.
The disability seemed to have little impact earlier in her career. She became the first and only American woman ever to medal in the triple jump at a major meet when she won bronze at the 2001 world indoor championships in Portugal. In ’04, the West Potomac grad went 14.45 meters (47 feet 5 inches) to break the existing American record of 47-3 and punch her ticket to Athens.
But prolonged stress on the eye took a drastic toll last year. The day before Hurd arrived at the Penn Relays in April, she awoke with half the vision in her right eye gone. The next morning in Philadelphia, the eye had almost completely blacked out. Only a sliver of light was detectable.
Hurd had emergency surgery to repair a detached retina. She has lost the peripheral vision in the eye and everything in front of it looks wavy. The triple jump this weekend will require Hurd’s footsteps to be precise while sprinting 20 miles per hour toward the board, but she can’t even see the eight-inch-wide wood from her starting position 128 feet away. What’s more, her best jump this season is 44-8, two feet shy of the A Olympic qualifying standard.
In order for the surgical reattachment to permanently stick, Hurd had to stay face down for four straight days. She was allowed up for only one hour three times a day.
During that time, Hurd lived in her living room chair with her face doubled over into a stack of pillows atop an ottoman. She brooded the other major injuries she’d had during the last four years, like the time she shredded ligaments in her ankle in March of 2008 and wound up missing the chance to defend her trials championship and make the team to Beijing and the debilitating back pain in ’09 and ’10 that made it nearly impossible for her to lean over the sink and brush her teeth, much less train.
This latest blow, for a woman who finished third at the NCAA indoor championships while competing for James Madison, who has won six-pack-abs contests against the men who work out in her gym—‘I’ve won every time,” she says — felt like the coup de grâce.
“To be someone who is always known for their work ethic and then to be forced to not do anything even when you want to train because your body won’t let you . . . . It was just getting to be too much,” Hurd said.
Added John F. Murray, a sports psychologist in Palm Beach, Fla.: “It’s bizarre to be a pro or Olympic athlete. There’s a focus so incredible on being a special performer that you think that’s everything. For an aging athlete, no one says I’m going to be half as good as I was three years ago, so there’s no time to be whining about getting old.”
Most of the women Hurd will be competing against this weekend are in their twenties.
“Right now she’s the grandmother,” said Clifford Holland, Hurd’s father. “She’s the senior citizen.”
But Hurd’s much-improved health has encouraged her to give it one last shot. She is almost as fast as she’s ever been, and she has set personal bests in the weight room this year.
“If she was doing what she was doing in high school it’d be time to hang up those cleats and get them bronzed and put them on the wall,” Holland said. “But right now she’s jumping where she’s competitive, so it’s time for us to make some history.”