Will Claye competes during the men's triple jump final at the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on Aug. 9, 2012 in London.
As a jumper, Will Claye wears two hats.
In the triple jump, he’s the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, 2012 indoor world champion and 2011 and 2013 outdoor world bronze medalist.
In the long jump, Claye won the 2012 Olympic bronze medal and was fourth at the 2012 indoor world championships.
|Will Claye attends the Bloomingdale's 59th Street And VisitBritain Host V.I.P. Cocktail Reception In Celebration Of Bloomingdale's Loves Great Britain Partnership on Sept. 11, 2013 in New York City.
He’ll be a double threat at the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships this week in Sacramento, California, with his signature accessory, fittingly, a hat.
Claye has bounded to three straight Diamond League meet titles this season in the triple jump while wearing a backward-facing cap.
“Before, I was the guy with the dreads; now I’m the guy with the hat,” said Claye, who cut his hair in late 2011 for a more mature look.
The hat made its first appearance at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, on May 31. Claye set a meet record and personal outdoor best of 57 feet, 11 ¼ inches (17.66 meters), defeating Christian Taylor, his longtime rival and the 2012 Olympic gold medalist.
“You’re supposed to do what you do at practice at the meet, so I kept the hat on and I’ve been able to continue to jump far,” said Claye. “I wouldn’t say it’s a lucky hat. I would call it a cool accessory, just having some swag on the track.”
His coach, Jeremy Fischer, doesn’t mind the headwear as long as it doesn’t fly off during a jump. That would be considered a foul.
“I said, ‘You can wear it as long as it makes you comfortable’ – and he’s doing pretty well with it right now,” Fischer said, but he cautioned Claye, “The minute it falls off, you’re done.”
Though Claye touches down in the triple jump with a force 15 times his body weight, the hat hasn’t budged.
“I don’t think my hat’s going anywhere,” he said.
But Claye, who turned 23 on June 13, is going places.
He was the only male U.S. track and field athlete to medal in two individual events in London as well as the first man to win medals in the Olympic long jump and triple jump since Naoto Tajima of Japan in 1936. No American man had achieved the double since Meyer Prinstein in 1904.
In an era of specialization on the elite level, Claye is determined to keep both events.
“It takes a lot of discipline, but I feel like I’ve just been blessed with that talent to be able to do it,” he said. “It wasn’t planned; it kind of just happened.”
Claye was always the fastest kid on the block growing up in Arizona, where his parents had moved from Sierra Leone. He was born while his mother was earning her doctorate in nutrition.
“At school they used to call me Speedy Gonzalez,” Claye said.
He tried the long jump in middle school, then the triple jump his freshman year of high school.
“Once I picked up the triple jump, I fell in love with it,” he said.
Not everyone can master the rhythm of what used to be called the “hop, step and jump.”
“It’s like skipping a rock,” said Claye, whose personal best of 58 feet, 1 inch (17.70 meters) was set at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in 2012.
While some jumpers use their stronger leg for the first two phases, Claye’s technique is “weak, weak, strong.” That means the final jump takes off from the same leg that he uses in the long jump.
“I’ve worked years and years to be able to do it,” Claye said. “I feel like I’m still learning it. It’s tough on the legs, but it kind of gives you a feeling that you’re flying because you’re spending so much time in the air. I wouldn’t trade it for any other event on the track.”
The long jump, which will be held Sunday in Sacramento, ranks a close second in Claye’s heart. Though it is not as complicated as the triple jump, it still feels “raw” to him, he said.
“I don’t feel like I’m doing it anyway near the right way,” Claye said. “Sometimes I’ll have a good jump and I’ll be like, ‘I don’t know how I did that.’”
Fischer, who works with Claye at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, said there’s no reason Claye can’t jump further in the long jump. He set his personal best of 26 feet, 10 ½ inches (8.29 meters) three years ago.
“Will has no limitations,” Fischer said. “He’s already jumped 58-1 and he’s only 23 years old. As we perfect things and get stronger year by year, we want to jump maybe 61 feet when it’s all said and done.”
This season, Claye hopes to win two more Diamond League events to wrap up the triple jump title. Next year, he’ll focus on the long jump.
Although there is no world championships or Olympic Games this year, Claye said he doesn’t consider it a “down” year.
“You’re only as good as your last competition,” he said. “You never want to go out there and half step it.”
Claye has also jumped wholeheartedly into his clothing line, called “DeveNir,” a French word meaning “to become.” He and his partner will show their spring/summer 2015 offerings at a trade show in August.
The stylish jumper describes the clothes as having a “European-type fit with a bit of athletic feel to it as well.”
Claye is also working with high jumper Erik Kynard, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, to put together a foundation called Elevate.
“It doesn’t particularly have anything to do with jumping, but just elevating people in whatever they do in life,” Claye said, “helping them reach their goals.”
He hopes to motivate people at every age level.
“There’s so much potential in every one of us,” Claye said, “and sometimes it takes just a few words for someone to say, ‘OK, yeah I can really do this.’”
No matter what hat they're wearing.
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.