Elbows caked with sand, sticking to the sweat brought forth by the mid-day sun, Muhammad Halim pulled himself out of the jumper’s pit at Walter Johnson High, picked up a rake and erased his body’s impression to soften the next landing.
As he made his way to the weight room after two hours practicing his triple jump on a scorching July afternoon, Halim let himself into the school’s equipment room with a key on his lanyard. It’s one of the perks of being an assistant coach on the Bethesda school’s track and field team.
“This is the glamorous part,” said a smiling Halim, as he turned a spigot on the wall and proceeded to drink from a garden hose.
Over the past few months, Halim has carried out his routine while surrounded by high schoolers kicking soccer balls and community members running on the track. Few, if any, of them know that the 29-year-old, lanky, 6-foot-3 man they see jumping and raking nearly every afternoon is ranked among the world’s top triple jumpers and will be heading to the Rio Olympics to compete on track and field’s biggest stage for the second time while representing the Virgin Islands.
Halim developed his own training regimen and goes at it alone, a rarity for an athlete of his caliber. As Halim has taken an increasingly intellectual approach to the sport, U.S. Virgin Islands Coach Nathan Taylor’s role has evolved into more that of a “consultant” than a traditional coach. Out here, Halim is his own motivator and critic.
“It’s like skipping a rock,” Halim explained between jumps. “You want to stay low, maintain as much speed as you can throughout while still being aggressive.”
To escape the extended aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, Halim and his family moved in 1993 from St. Croix to join extended family in upstate New York when he was 7 years old. Halim’s interest in jumping was sparked by his older brother Kamau — one of his 10 siblings — who still holds the indoor triple-jump record at the University of Buffalo. His younger brother, Hasheem, holds Virginia Tech’s outdoor record in the event.
Halim’s first chance to compete came in the fifth grade, when his school held a field day featuring a variety of competitions. “Triple jump was the only event that I won that day,” Halim said. “I suffered defeat in everything else that I did.”
That victory was enough to tide him over until middle school, when Halim was able to join the track team in seventh grade. From there, his passion for the sport continued unabated, eventually drawing the attention of Taylor, then the head coach at Cornell.
“The first time that I met him. . . there was just something very unique about him,” Taylor said. “I thought he was a very mature, very sophisticated thinker who was motivated to do whatever he needed to do to excel at things.”
In the years since earning his degree at Cornell in applied business and management, Halim has worked as a business and financial analyst for various hotel and education companies. The profession provides an outlet for his natural desire to solve problems, an affinity that carries over to the track.
“He’s a real student of what he does inside and out,” Taylor said. “He’s a creative guy, so he likes to put things together in ways that include all of the things that he knows that he needs to do.”
Aaron Gadson, Halim’s teammate at Cornell and a former roommate of seven years, described him as the “type of guy that will be online late into the night reading scientific papers.” He approaches the runway with the same focus.
As he meticulously goes through his self-designed workouts, Halim is picking apart every move he makes in his head.
“Every little thing can be tweaked and fixed,” Halim said. “If I do this kind of jump in practice, how is this going to manifest itself three months down the line? How do you piece together this puzzle to make it all work?”
Though it works for Halim, self-training is an enterprising undertaking, especially for somebody competing at the highest level.
Halim approaches his own jumps with an undeniable intensity, but according to Gadson, “in every other facet of his life, he’s very much laid back.”
That includes in his coaching role. Halim was previously an assistant at Churchill, and former Bulldogs jumper Julia McDermott, who still trains with Halim when she’s in town, describes him as both passionate and patient.
”It doesn’t seem like we’re out there grinding because it seems like you’re just hanging out with Muhammad and having a good time,” said McDermott, now a rising sophomore running for William & Mary. “We’re always laughing and joking about stuff.”
Halim was working full time during his training for the 2012 Summer Games in London when he sustained an injury to his right ankle that would later require surgery. Hampered by the pain, he didn’t make it past the qualifying round.
This time around, Halim left his job as a regional finance manager to focus on training. In April, at the Morgan State Legacy Meet in Baltimore, he hit a personal-best 16.99 meters (55.74 feet) to qualify for Rio. Only 14 jumpers worldwide have surpassed that mark this year.
Jumping as well as he ever has, and with Olympic experience under his belt, Halim has his sights set higher for Rio.
“I’ve sacrificed a lot to make sure that this time I’m not just an Olympian but I’m somebody who competed really well in the Olympics,” Halim said. “Wherever the chips may fall, I want to feel like I was competitive, [like] I stuck my nose into the competition and made an impact on my event.”
As one of seven total representatives and one of just three track and field athletes competing for the Virgin Islands, which earned a medal most recently at the 1988 Summer Games, Halim’s presence carries a special significance.
“It’s so much more impactful being from there,” Halim said. “Because it’s a small island, there’s a lot of pride there in what we do. Anybody who comes out of there and does something on the world stage makes a major impact. Everybody knows about it.”
“What we really want to do,” he added, “and what would be so special for the country, is to start sniffing our way towards medaling.”