Paralympic champion and two-time world champion high jumper Jeff Skiba, who is competing in the high jump and javelin F44 events at this week’s IPC Athletics World Championships, has already hinted at the Rio 2016 Games being his final Paralympic Games.
“You always re-evaluate at the end of the quad, but at this point it’ll be my fourth Paralympic Games, and more likely than not my last one,” Skiba said.
Therefore, at the world championships, which run from Oct. 21-31 in Doha, Qatar, Skiba will be doing more than just competing.
He’ll be preparing to pass the baton to his predecessor when he retires.
Skiba has been and will continue to mentor newcomer Roderick Townsend, whose jam-packed Doha schedule in the T46/47 combined events includes the triple jump, which he won the silver medal in, as well as the upcoming high jump, long jump, 100-meter and 4x100-meter relay.
This transition started when Skiba first spotted Townsend high jumping in early 2014 at an open meet at Arizona State, where he was already closing in on what would be a world-record mark in the T46 class.
Skiba, an amputee born without a fibula in his left leg, nudged his coach, Jeremy Fisher, motioning to Townsend’s right arm, which was visibly smaller and weaker than his left.
As soon as Skiba started talking to Townsend after the meet, the two hit it off.
“The thing about Roderick is he’s not doing track and field because he wants the fame,” Skiba said. “He’s doing it because he enjoys the sport, and I can see that.
“He knows how to fight and battle for the win. It’s not about trying to hit personal bests all the time, but it’s about being able to battle. That’s something I’ve always liked to pride myself in, and he likes to breathe those same things with me.”
Skiba took 25-year-old Townsend — a high school football player and five-time all-Mountain West Conference track and field athlete at Boise State — under his wing almost instantly.
At this time last year, Townsend made the decision to transfer his focus from the IAAF World Championships to the Paralympic circuit. He underwent classification and took part in his first IPC athletics competition — the Desert Challenge Games in May in Mesa, Arizona.
Townsend shocked the field at the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships in June, breaking the high jump T46 world record with a gold-medal-winning mark of 2.07 meters. He also took home titles in the long jump and 100-meter.
He went on to break his own high jump world record at August’s Parapan American Games in Toronto with a leap of 2.12 meters in a combined class event in which Skiba claimed bronze.
“To be on the podium with him and winning the gold medal was definitely something I’ll be remembering for a long time,” Townsend said.
Skiba also informally stepped in as Townsend’s trainer in Toronto, as his coach was unable to swing the trip.
At that time, Skiba noticed how much the Paralympic world had transformed since he took up track and field. Everything from marketing and exposure to athlete performances and training has spiked exponentially since Skiba patterned himself after five-time Paralympic medalist Marlon Shirley more than a decade ago.
“Things have changed a ton across the board,” Skiba said. “There’s always been good athletes in the sport, but there’s a lot more depth nowadays. Instead of having one guy that’s hitting really good marks, you have three, four or five guys right in the pack, and anyone can take it.”
So what’s Skiba’s biggest piece of advice for Townsend at this day in age?
Take care of the little things.
Every. Single. Day.
“It’s not what you do every four years, it’s what you do every day,” Skiba said. “It’s those daily battles and struggles that’s going to really make the difference in whether or not you’re a champion at the end of the four-year cycle.”
On the flipside, what has Townsend, a jumps coach at Northern Arizona, taught Skiba?
“That he’s old,” Townsend said, laughing. “That he needs to go out there and win all the time.”
Joking aside, Townsend knows he has Skiba to thank for getting him in peak shape for his world championship debut.
“Sometimes it just takes hearing certain things from certain people to make it click,” Townsend said.
“But I know as soon as this meet is over, I’m going to really, really enjoy my six weeks of rest and recovery, because at the end of this month it will have been 14 months straight of training.”
Watch Townsend and Skiba compete in Doha via a free live stream at USParalympics.org.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.