by Tajay Gayle
I looked down the runway, imagining what I was about do. My mind was blank, the way it should be.
I saw the cameraman at the other side of the pit and I looked into his lens. I rocked back and forth, and then it was time to go. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven – I counted my steps. After the seventh one I’m tall, running like a sprinter.
The last 10 strides I got faster and faster and, right before I hit the board, I heard someone scream. The way I hit the board, I knew I’d get enough height for a big one.
I’ve never been a great jumper in the air – getting the hitch-kick right is tough for me – but when I landed I knew it was a good jump. The crowd’s reaction told me.
I ran straight out of the pit, put my hands up, then looked back to see it was a white flag. The distance came up on the screen: 8.69 metres.
I ran back and met my coach, who was all excited.
“It’s over,” he told me. “The meet’s done. Pack up now.”
It was still only the fourth round, but it started to dawn on me: I was about to become the world champion.
At the start, I took up athletics for one reason: to beat my cousin in street races. I grew up in August Town, a poor area of Kingston, Jamaica. We had a large extended family, and I’d race my cousins every day. I was a fast kid so I usually won, but in grade five of primary school my cousin started beating me.
I was competitive, I couldn’t stand losing, so I signed up for the track and field team at school. On the first day I met the coach, Shaniekie Osbourne, who asked me what I did.
“The 100 metres,” I said.
“What’s your fastest time.”
“Six or seven seconds.”
She said to sit and watch that day’s training and I could join in the next day. In those early years, I was a high jumper, and in 10th grade I made it to ‘Champs’, finishing 12th.
In 11th grade, my coach told me I should also do the long jump because of how well I did in sprint events at the school sports day. Back then, I could long jump about 6.15m and to me, seven metres seemed incredible. I had no idea the best in the world could jump well over eight metres.
At Champs that year, I jumped about 6.50m and came 24th in the long jump, and I was given a scholarship to the University of Technology, or UTech.
Coming from August Town, I had nothing else to do. It was a straight road to UTech. No turn-off, no other choices.
In those early years, I didn’t have many good results in athletics, but I still wasn’t fully dedicated to it. Training was hard, time-consuming. I’d finish school at 3-4pm and not get home until after 8pm.
In my area there was a lot of violence, and some days I’d get a call from my mother to skip training and come home early. She didn’t want me walking home when it was dark.
Apart from that, the violence didn’t really affect me.
I was never out on the road or mixing much with others. As a kid I spent most of my time on my own. We had very little, but I always had a big imagination. I didn’t need toys – anything I put my hands on, I made use of it.
In my teens, after a few years coming and going from athletics, I developed a real love for training. My coach had to stay on my case to keep me on track, but once I started enjoying it, I committed.
When I went to UTech, Stephen Francis took over my coaching, and he saw very quickly that I could jump a lot further. I left high school with a best of 6.65m, but in my first training session at UTech I jumped 7.20m.
I was like: really? It’s that easy to jump seven metres?
I ended that season with 7.54m and the next year, 2017, I jumped eight metres. Last year, I knew during the summer I had a good shot at a world medal in Doha, especially after jumping 8.32m in London.
I knew there was a big jump coming because at no point had I put everything together, yet I was still jumping pretty far.
At the Pan American Games in Peru, I won silver with 8.17m but my last jump was much, much bigger – except I fouled by the length of a toenail.
All the time, I try to work out ways to get better.
I spend a lot of time watching the top jumpers. Not only the very best, but all the athletes who can jump over eight metres.
I asked myself: what is it that makes them jump that far?
Some were faster than me, some were better in the air, some were skinnier, some were bigger.
I could run fast and jump 8.20m, so I’d study what another guy with less speed than me was doing, figuring out how he could jump just as far. I’d watch those videos and take something to training, and my coach and I would have a friendly dispute on what to do.
In Doha my goal was to get a medal, but I never thought it would be gold.
But I made a big mistake that week. I put the event on a pedestal, started to overthink it.
On the circuit I’d been competing with the same people, but at World Champs I put those athletes a little bit higher instead of just treating them the same.
I was the first one to jump in qualifying, and before the event started I was walking around cluelessly before someone touched me and said: “sir, it’s your time to jump.”
I saw the clock counting down and rushed it, jumping 7.81 on my opening attempt.
Okay, no big deal.
I moved my run-up back a little, but by then I was overthinking again. I fouled my second jump. That's when I got nervous.
My third jump wasn’t much better: 7.89m. I walked out of the arena upset and met my team, and they were as angry as me, thinking I had been eliminated. But the jump had been enough to get into the final in 12th place.
I felt such relief.
“Don’t worry,” I told them. “I know what I did wrong. I got this.”
In my first attempt of the final the next night, I remember a Jamaican assistant coach shouting at me as I took off down the runway: “Fast!”
I don’t go to 100 percent speed, more like 90, as that’s the amount I can control when I jump.
The distance came up on screen: 8.46m.
I was in front. When I came back coach told me what I did wrong, and I knew there was more in the tank. But I fouled the next two attempts, leading to that fourth jump, the one where I cleared my mind and hit the board just right.
Winning a title like that changes things. I was never the type to go out, but when I did in the months after people sometimes asked: Are you Tajay Gayle?
Sometimes I’d say “maybe, maybe not,” and have fun with it, but it’s been great to see the positive feedback from kids in Jamaica who are doing the long jump.
Getting to the top also means your rivals are trying to take you down. I was very competitive as a child and I’m still that way, so I’ll try my best to stay there.
I know I can get better. In Doha I was trying to fix my hitch-kick technique, and it’s the area of my jump – along with my landing – that still needs a lot of work.
If I get that right, I know I can jump further. Maybe 8.80m next year, and who knows? Maybe nine metres in the future.