Thea LaFond’s fingers ran across a black marble tabletop, mimicking her approach during practice for the Olympic triple jump in Rio de Janeiro just 10 months earlier. Suddenly, her middle finger gave way, much as her left hamstring did that day. During her approach, as she transitioned from longer to shorter strides, from speed to power, she felt a pull. “God, no. Not here. Not now. Please, no,” she thought. ¶ Because LaFond — who grew up in Silver Spring but competed for her native Dominica — jumped off her right leg, her left leg would be doing most of the work in the step phase. Hampered by the injury, LaFond jumped 42 feet in qualifying, the worst performance of her professional career, and finished last.
Devastated, she said she cried that night. “That was the greatest chip on my shoulder that the universe could have ever thrown my way,” LaFond said recently in Silver Spring.
But her failure also set in motion her comeback. In just eight months, LaFond changed her coach, her workouts and her approach before setting a Franklin Field record of 46-7.25 in April at the Penn Relays.
LaFond — who was one half of Dominica’s team in Rio — calls the Olympics “a learning experience.” It’s also where she met Muhammad Halim, a triple jumper competing for the U.S. Virgin Islands. They met a few days after LaFond’s jump. Halim had analyzed video of her qualifying leap and told her both her running and jumping techniques could be better. She thought about what he said.
“If I kept doing the same thing, there’s no way I could expect different results,” LaFond said. And so over the next few weeks, she tried reaching Halim by phone, email and finally social media.
“Please check your DMs and call me,” LaFond wrote to Halim via social media Aug. 22.
Halim finally got back to her and in late October, they met at a restaurant in Montgomery County. Halim brought his former Cornell roommate and teammate, Aaron Gadson.
“What I wanted and what made the most sense is for her to work with Aaron,” Halim said. “Aaron has the knowledge to take this on.”
Gadson, who coaches track at Churchill High, had a career-best jump of better than 49 feet. But he had never worked with a professional athlete.
“I need a full jumping program,” LaFond told them. “I need a coach I can see every day, and I need also an entire weight program.”
LaFond — a 2015 University of Maryland graduate — teaches at her alma mater, Kennedy High, where she was an All-Met in 2011. She had been training with a coach in Virginia, but that left her with a two-hour commute each day. Gadson put together a jumping program that focused on mechanics and fundamentals, added a new weightlifting program and worked on her sprinting.
One day over the winter, while LaFond was practicing her jumps with both legs, Gadson noticed that when she used her left leg, she looked better than when she jumped off her right.
LaFond saw his expression. “Oh, he’s not . . . there’s no way he’s thinking . . .” she said she thought.
He was. And so began a process of reversing eight years of muscle memory.
“It’s basically teaching your body how to jump again,” said LaFond, who had been using her right leg since she was a teenager. It’s not as extreme as, say, a basketball player switching shooting hands, or a baseball player switching sides of the plate.
But one college coach said it is not easy.
“I don’t really know what to compare it to,” said Todd Lane, an assistant coach at LSU.
Lane is entering his 10th season as jumps coach for the Tigers. Switching legs is somewhat unusual, he said, but not unheard-of. He pointed to Olympic gold medalist Christian Taylor, who won a gold medal at the 2012 London Games while jumping off his left leg, and again in Rio last year, jumping off his right leg.
Triple jumpers, Lane and Gadson said, usually practice using both legs. LaFond did. And at Maryland she used her left leg to compete in the long jump. But that didn’t make the transition any easier.
“There were very frustrating days!” LaFond said. She sometimes inadvertently began using her right leg until Gadson noticed and pushed her back to using her left. As weeks turned to months, she started to get used to her new jump. February was the hardest. March was better.
April was the best.
The Penn Relays were only LaFond’s second competition since Rio. She had a new coach, a new running technique, a new jumping technique. On the afternoon of April 29, LaFond ran down the track at Franklin Field in Philadelphia. She transitioned from longer to shorter strides, just as she had in Rio. But this time, she felt no pull. She went to the step phase, and then the jump phase. She planted with her left leg, then took off.
“I knew,” LaFond said. “This is a good jump.”
She landed and got up, covered with sand. Then she and Gadson watched the scoreboard together for the results. When they saw her distance — 14.2 meters — they lost it. The leap was not only a stadium record; it qualified LaFond for the world championships in August.
LaFond posted a picture on social media later that day with Gadson. “We’re going to Worlds,” the caption said. In her left hand, she held the first-place prize: a gold watch.
She gave that watch to Gadson, a gift of gratitude for her new coach. Two months later, that watch was still in Gadson’s car, untouched.
“It’s a woman’s watch,” he said as he and LaFond walked over to his gold Audi. He opened the back left door and pulled out a navy blue box and removed the watch. The sun reflected off its gold band. Benjamin Franklin is on the face, sitting in his library chair, facing four nude runners.
“It’s small,” he said. But then, with LaFond standing next to him, he put it on, and, despite the watch’s size, it fit comfortably on his wrist.