Less than a year ago, Will Claye’s coach at Florida referred to him as perhaps the best athlete most people have never heard of.
That may not be true for long.
Claye, who left Florida last year after his junior season to turn pro and prepare for the Olympic Games this summer in London won the triple jump earlier this month at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Istanbul.
A day after finishing fourth in the long jump, Claye jumped 58-1 to win the triple jump. The mark is the best in the world this year and a personal best, topping the 57-5 he jumped at the 2011 World Outdoor Championships in Daegu, South Korea, en route to a bronze medal.
In Istanbul he edged out U.S. teammate Christian Taylor (57-10¼) for the gold, turning the tables on his good friend, who won gold at the 2011 World Outdoor Championships (58-11).
Claye, 20, lives in Imperial Beach, Calif., not far from the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista where he trains with coach Jeremy Fischer. Fischer also was Claye’s coach at the University of Oklahoma for two years before Claye transferred to Florida.
Claye’s career has been on a high trajectory since his days as a multisport athlete growing up in Phoenix. Aside from his triple-jump bronze last year in the world championships, Claye was runner-up in both the triple jump (56-9) and long jump (26-10½) at the 2011 U.S. Championships and was a two-time NCAA triple jump champion (2011 indoor and 2009 outdoor).
With his sights set on London and a busy Olympic-year schedule ahead, Claye took time out this week to talk about his victory at Istanbul, the switch from college to international competition, what it’s like to train and compete in both the triple jump and long jump, his friendship with Taylor and how he likes to relax away from the track:
What was it like to win at the Indoor World Championships?
“It was awesome. It was definitely a blessing to do that after a long week. I did long jump and triple jump so it was just, I had to give it my all out there and I ended up coming out with the gold.”
Did you think you would do well?
“Oh yeah, me and my coach had been working really well at practice. … We’re trying to get ready for the Olympics, so, we really didn’t let off. So we’ve been training, training, training, but I knew I had it in me, just going into the meet with the world-leading mark. I knew I had further marks. So I just had to get my technique down and hit the board right and then after that, everything will just take care of itself …
“I’m still trying to get used to this traveling thing, traveling overseas to compete. That’s something I’m trying to get accustomed to. I have to get used to it now, competing on the circuit.”
It’s not like traveling around the SEC anymore, is it?
“No, no, no (laughs). We’re not just going up the road anymore; we’re going over the water.”
What’s your schedule like leading up to the Olympic Games?
“I’ll be training, training, training. I’m training real hard right now. I’ll go to Arizona State in a couple of weeks to run. And then I’ll go over to a meet in Florida at Tom Jones (Invitational) to run and then the first of May I’ll open up in the long jump at Guadeloupe. The 9th of May I open up at the triple jump in Cayman Islands, and I will be in New York long jump and then triple jump at Prefontaine and then USAs and hopefully I can make the team at USAs and then go out to training camp in Birmingham and then The Olympics.
“I’m excited. I’m looking forward to the outdoor season. You know, coming off indoor season I always base my outdoor season on what happened indoors, because it’s just a good gauge of where I should be in training and whatnot … I’m definitely excited to see what God has planned for me outdoor season.”
What’s it like training for both the long jump and triple jump?
“My coach does a good job of balancing that out at practice. I feel like we do a little bit more triple jump training. Long jump really just happens. I definitely do triple jump more. The long jump, it just, if you hit the board right, if you drive your knee and all that good stuff, you’ll fly. The triple jump’s a little bit more technical, the three phases — there’s just one in the long. So we work on the triple jump a little bit more.”
Where do you put yourself among the world’s top triple jumpers, like Taylor, Cuba’s Alexis Copello and Great Britain’s Phillips Idowu?
“I really couldn’t say. I go out there every meet, I go out there to win, but I also don’t feel like I go out there just to compete against them. I go out to do the best that I can on that day.”
What’s it like competing against your good friend Christian Taylor?
“It just brings back memories of practice (at the University of Florida) last year, you know. We practiced against each other every day, and practice was heated, just like it was at meets, except it was just Christian, me, Omar (Craddock) and (jumps) coach (Dick) Booth …
“That’s the feeling I get when we’re competing against each other. Me and Christian are really good friends, so it’s always fun to compete against him. I know that he’s going to push me and I know that I’m going to push him. It’s been a blessing for the both of us to have each other.”
How long have you worked with Fischer, and how have you developed under him?
“Coach Fischer was my coach my first two years of college when I was at Oklahoma. So he came to the training center after my sophomore year, and that’s when I transferred to Florida. So when I decided that I was going to forgo my last year and go pro, that was when I decided to come back to coach Fischer (at the Olympic Training Center). And it’s been awesome. This fall I did my training with (coach) Mike Holloway in Florida, so I definitely got a good base and a lot of speed work, so when I got out here it was really more technique and jumping. So it’s been good and the numbers are showing. I just put my trust in him (Fischer) and his workouts, and just leave it all in God’s hands that we can, you know, jump far.”
You once were described by Holloway as perhaps the best athlete nobody’s heard of. Would you agree with that?
“Yeah, I guess (laughs). I’m a pretty good athlete. I’ve always been an athlete since I was young. I played multiple sports. I’ve done track, baseball, soccer, basketball, football, so I mean, I guess you could say I’m a good athlete (laughs).”
Do you think a lot more people are soon going to know about you?
“Only God knows. You know, I feel like if I continue on this path that I’m on, that more people will start to notice. But you’re only as good as your last competition. That’s what people know you for, so I just have to go out there and compete to the best of my abilities and hopefully put big marks out there and hopefully people see those big marks.”
When did you decide to focus just on track and leave the other sports behind?
“I had a hard time giving up football when I was leaving high school. I had a few offers for track and football (wide receiver/defensive back), a few schools … I was real small in high school and those guys that play football are pretty big (laughs). I mean, I feel like I could play. I feel like I can play with the best of them, even now, but I feel like track was just my route to take. It was hard to give up football but I feel like where I’m at now is where I need to be.”
Why the triple jump?
“Triple jump might be one of the most elegant events in track and field. And it’s probably one of the hardest as well. I know a lot of people see us out there and say, ‘Man, how do you do that? How do you jump on the same leg twice like that? Does it hurt?’ And I just feel like it’s different. A lot of track is about running around in circles or running in a straight line, but we run in a straight line and we jump three times into a pit of sand, so it’s definitely a hard task. And I feel like a lot more people should pay attention to the triple jump. I feel like me and Christian are bringing more attention to the triple jump now.”
How do you explain the event to people who ask about it?
“(Laughs.) A lot people know the term ‘a hop, skip and a jump,’ so that’s what I try to tell people. But if I can’t explain it, I just try to show it to them so they can see what the triple jump is all about. But I mean, I just try to say, you take off from the board and then you jump onto that same leg that you took off with, and then you jump again onto your opposite leg and from there you jump into the sand (laughs). That’s the best way I can explain it to somebody.”
Once you take off, you can’t think about it, right?
“Yeah, definitely. The only thing I think about when I’m going down the runway is running the fastest I can. I don’t think about the jump because I’ve practiced the jump so many times that it’s already there. There’s not really much I can change at meet. So just run and when I take off from the board, everything just happens.
“I think the bigger jumps come from more intensity, but I feel like everything just happens from the board. There might be a few minor changes that I’ll make every now and then, but nothing big. It’s not on my mind, like, ‘Oh, shoot. I’ve got to do this on my second phase.’ It’s not like that.”
Do you have a pre-event routine?
“Before I take each jump, as I’m waiting for the person in front of me to jump, I say a prayer. And then I take off my warm-up, and then I kind of walk down the runway a little bit and get a look at where I hope to land in the pit — at the end of the pit, the back of the pit (laughs). And I walk back to my starting point and I’ll say another prayer and then I’ll take off.”
Do you have any idols? Are there jumpers you’ve studied?
“No, I don’t have any idols. But I do like the way Jonathan Edwards jumped in the past. I like Kenny Harrison. Kenny Harrison was a great jumper. But I feel I’m more of a Jonathan Edwards type of jumper. I watch videos of Mike Conley, Al Joyner, Willie Banks, Carl Lewis. I watch videos of Ivan Pedroso and Mike Powell. I watch a lot of film on jumpers. I feel like it helps a lot to watch, especially slow motion. When I get on the runway at practice, I try to add that (information) into what I’m doing to see if I can better my distances.”
Your faith seems very important to you. Is it a part of your daily life?
“Definitely. Every day, all day. I feel like that’s my strength and that’s my peace of mind. I don’t really have to worry about anything. A lot of people have a lot of stuff on their mind they have to worry about, and that takes away from the way they can compete and practice. I feel like I can go to practice and go to competitions and just do what I have to do. I don’t really have to worry about anything. I know that God’s taking care of everything. I don’t have to stress over anything.”
What do you like to do away from training?
“Something that me and my training partner (Tyron Stewart) have been doing a lot, we just go to the beach. Like we’ll go to Pacific Beach or Ocean Beach. I live in Imperial Beach, so the beach isn’t too far. It’s a mile away. We just go out to the beach. Just relax, get away from everything, away from the track and all that. Yeah, the weather’s always nice. Get out of the house and relax.”