EUGENE, Ore. — Jackie Joyner-Kersee has been waiting for someone like Brittney Reese to come along.
There were others, sure, but they cared more about sprinting or didn’t stick around long enough. Joyner-Kersee is still one of only two American women to win an Olympic medal in the long jump since 1956.
Reese, 25, could change that this summer.
“She’s something we haven’t seen in the States in many, many years,” said Joyner-Kersee, a six-time Olympic medalist, three of which came in the long jump.
Joyner-Kersee has kept a close eye on Reese’s development. She’s really had no choice. Reese has been more dominant than any other American track and field athlete since the last Summer Games. She’s won four world championships — two outdoor and two indoor — and is a four-time national champion. Reese broke Joyner-Kersee’s indoor American record this year, jumping 23 feet 8¾ inches.
Reese’s resume since 2008 looks like that of an international assassin: First-place hits in Berlin; Thessaloniki, Greece; Doha, Qatar; Brasschaat, Belgium; Zurich; Paris; Rome; Monaco; Istanbul; Lausanne, Switzerland; Daegu, South Korea.
The Mississippi long jumper picks up frequent-flier miles without the aid of any airline. She’s posted the best distances in the world each of the past two years and will likely enter London as the favorite. First, she’ll have to top the field at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. Reese competed in the qualifying round Thursday, and the long jump finals are scheduled for Sunday.
She calls the last four years a journey, physically and mentally. At the Beijing Olympics, Reese posted the best jump in the qualifying rounds but then settled for fifth place. She remembers sitting on the bus as it left the Bird’s Nest stadium and returned to the Olympic Village. Reese stared out the window and cried.
“I was just devastated,” she said.
A phone call from her mom and encouraging e-mail from her coach that night helped Reese refocus her efforts on London four years down the road. And since then she’s been nearly unbeatable. Joyner-Kersee and Marion Jones are the only American women to ever jump farther. (Jones was temporarily an Olympic medalist, but her long-jumping bronze from the 2000 Summer Games was one of five medals she returned after admitting she had used performance-enhancing drugs.)
Today, Reese is capable of jumping more than a foot farther than her Beijing marks and has a different approach to the sport, too.
“It taught me when I go out to compete to have fun, not focus solely on winning,” she said. “Everything about Beijing helped me get my mind set for London.”
Reese is still a relatively young competitor in the sport. Though she jumped in high school, she played basketball at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and didn’t really focus on the long jump until transferring to the University of Mississippi before her junior year.
“I think she realized she could be good in basketball or great in track,” Ole Miss Coach Joe Walker said. “She wanted to be great.”
Reese initially missed playing ball and being a part of a team, but her potential in the long jump quickly came into focus. She improved by more than three feet her first season with Walker.
“The distances were just coming a lot quicker than I could’ve thought they would,” Reese said. “That helped me move on from basketball. It just kind of happened. Clearly, this is what I was supposed to be doing.”
Reese is easy to spot on the field. She has more than a dozen tattoos, including a sleeve on her right arm that features a cross, and the Olympic rings on her chest, alongside her nickname, “Beast.” The ink is the loudest thing about her.
“I’ve always liked her demeanor,” Joyner-Kersee said. “I observe a lot of athletes from afar and I see how they are as a person, how they are around friends and family and even strangers. She can seem soft-spoken, but really, she’s just that focused.“
“Very humble on the outside, very competitive inside,” is how Walker describes his star pupil.
Reese tries not to think in terms of specific marks, but she figures she’ll need to jump 23 feet in London to get a sniff of the podium. Her best outdoor mark is 23-7¼, posted at last year’s U.S. championships. Those who have watched Reese grow in the sport say they wouldn’t dare put limits on her. The world record is 24-8¼.
“That’s what makes her a really scary competitor,” Joyner-Kersee said. “What I see in Brittney is something special. She has that ability. Twenty-five feet — anything is possible.”
Said Walker: “She hasn’t come close to her plateau yet. She has a lot more in her.”
Notes: The men’s 200 meter final is scheduled for Sunday, and most of the top American sprinters will be nowhere near the starting blocks. In Friday’s preliminary heats, Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay, the top finishers in the 100 meters last weekend, scratched, as expected. Walter Dix, who tweaked his hamstring in the 100 semifinal last week, was also a no-show, which means his lone chance of competing at the Olympics would be as a member of the 4x100 relay team, if he’s chosen.
Wallace Spearmon was the top qualifier in the 200, posting a time of 20.17 seconds Friday. Though he finished third in the event at the Beijing Games, Spearmon was disqualified for stepping out of his lane. Shawn Crawford (20.32) had the fourth-best qualifying time. Crawford was the gold medal-winner at the Athens Games and took home silver four years later. . . .
Jillian Camarena-Williams will compete in her second Olympics, winning the shot put Friday with a throw measuring 62 feet, 101 / 2 inches. She’ll be joined by Michelle Carter (60-111 / 4) and Tia Brooks (60-2). Camarena-Williams finished 12th at the Beijing Games. . . .
Annapolis’s Matt Centrowitz advanced to the 1,500 meter finals with the top time in Friday’s semifinals, finishing his heat in 3 minutes, 41.9 seconds. Robby Andrews, the former University of Virginia runner, had the third-best time (3:42.14). The finals are set for Sunday afternoon. . . .
Emma Coburn, the defending national champion in the 3,000 meter steeplechase, is headed to her first Olympics. She won Friday’s final with a time of 9 minutes 32.78 seconds. She was followed by Bridget Franek (9:35.62) and Shalaya Kipp (9:35.73).