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Brittney Reese hopes to be leaps and bounds above the rest

The long jumper, who finished fifth at the Beijing Olympics, has her sights set on gold in London. Reese will compete in the Mt. SAC Relays on Saturday and the U.S. trials in June.

April 20, 2012|By Baxter Holmes
  • U.S. Olympic hopeful Brittney Reese has worked hard to become one of the most dominant long jumpers in the world.
U.S. Olympic hopeful Brittney Reese has worked hard to become one of the… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

It was a Mississippi afternoon where everything sweats, and a cold Coke was at stake.

Whichever member of the Gulfport High School girls' basketball team long-jumped the farthest would receive the much-desired refreshment.

Those were the guidelines set by the high school's track and field coach, who was searching high and low for a new long-jumper.

Brittney Reese lined up, thirsty but clueless about long jumping. She just ran and leaped — and 18 feet later, she landed. The coach asked her to do it again. She did.

The Coke was hers and a new long-jumper was his.

Reese was a high school junior then, in 2003, the year of her first long jump. Five years later, she would be running and leaping in the Beijing Olympics, and Reese is all but a certainty to be at it again this summer in London as an American gold-medal favorite.

That chronological leap is a hefty one. Almost as impressive is the 23 feet, 8 3/4 inches Reese jumped in March at the 2012 World Indoor Championships.

It was the longest indoor jump by a woman in 23 years and four inches better than her idol Jackie Joyner-Kersee's American record set 18 years earlier.

"Hello, Miss American Record Holder," Joyner-Kersee texted Reese.

Reese finished fifth in Beijing, a "heartbreaking" result that left her in tears on the shuttle bus back to the athletes' village. But it also made a light bulb go off in her head.

"That's never where I want to be," she said.

She's been dominant since, taking gold at the World Outdoor Championships (2009, 2011), World Indoor Championships (2010, 2012), and winning four USA Outdoor Championship titles and two USA Indoor Championship titles.

On Saturday, Reese will jump in the Mt. SAC Relays. In late June, she'll compete at the U.S. National trials in Eugene, Ore., where she's favored to qualify for London.

Winning a medal in London would help ease the sting of Beijing, and Reese aims for gold, knowing that's what many expect from someone known as "The Beast."

"I'm going in more focused this time," she said.

She'll also be going in more self-aware of long-jumping's role in her life.

"I've finally figured out that this is what I need to be doing, that this is my sport," she said.

It wasn't always. Growing up in Gulfport, she played T-ball, basketball, football — "everything but track and field," she said.

In seventh grade, she tried it and wanted to quit. Her mother, Carla Young, said no.

"Whatever you start, you have to finish," Young said. "You can't go halfway."

Reese had quit before — piano lessons, swimming — but she stuck with track and field, partly on her mother's advice, though basketball was her first love.

"I said, 'In basketball, you've got to have a team make you,' " said Young, now retired after working 22 years delivering packages for FedEx. "In track, you make you."

Oddly enough, basketball ended up helping Reese, who was born in Inglewood, Calif., and moved at the age of 3 to Mississippi for her mother's job, in the long jump.

Reese explains it this way: In the long jump, you want to lift one knee upward, toward your chest, to help "drive" your body upward during a jump.

She has always done this well, quite well, and she said it's probably because basketball players make the same move — lifting one knee upward — when driving for a layup.

(Food for thought: The NBA three-point line is 23 feet, 9 inches from the hoop at the top of the key on a court, and that distance is one-quarter inch less than Reese's best leap, meaning she could cover that gap in one jump. "That's pretty far," she laughed.)

Reese stuck with the long jump and turned down Division-I basketball scholarships to accept a track scholarship to the University of Mississippi and learn under its track and field Coach Joe Walker, who immediately recognized in her what he called "God-given ability."

"How she hits the jump, she's probably the best man or woman I've ever seen," said Walker, in his third decade as the Rebels' coach, and who has produced an Olympian at every Games from 1976 to 2000 and again in 2008.

When she nails a takeoff and the many unseen moves thereafter, all of them synchronizing to make for a perfect leap, Reese said it feels as if she's flying.

(More food for thought: The 5-foot-8 Reese is an experienced dunker.)

She flew throughout her Ole Miss career, becoming the 2007 Southeastern Conference women's field athlete of the year.

If you think her rise to track-and-field excellence is somehow in the genes, it isn't. Reese said she's the only one in her immediate family that plays sports.

"It's crazy," the second of three sisters said, shaking her head.

Call her lucky, then. But that's also what she calls her family after Hurricane Katrina moved through Gulfport and the aftermath left the city in ruins.

The brick house she grew up in had mold in the walls, a collapsed ceiling in the living room and a leaky roof. But it still stood, unlike many houses nearby.

"We were lucky," she said.

The city is close to her heart. And it was there that she actually started leaping.

As a child, she would climb up neighborhood oak trees even though her grandfather forbade it, and she would leap down before he could catch her.

Lately, the competition hasn't been able to catch her either.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

twitter.com/baxterholmes

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