RIO DE JANEIRO – Jeff Henderson’s coach motivated him to win the Olympic long jump gold medal Saturday the same way he motivated his wife 28 years ago.
The coach: Al Joyner, the 1984 Olympic triple jump gold medalist. His wife? The late Florence Griffith Joyner.
“He gave me his gold medal here,” Henderson said. “He said, ‘Give back my gold medal and you keep your gold medal.’ I said OK. It was a little motivation to me. That’s what he did with FloJo.”
Griffith Joyner won both the 100- and 200-meter at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games, which took place a few months before Henderson was born.
He was so confident he would win the long jump at Olympic Stadium that he gave Joyner the medal back before the competition even started.
“If I don’t believe in myself,” Henderson said, “I already lost!”
And he won with a clutch jump, securing that gold medal on his sixth and final attempt. Henderson leaped a season-best 27 feet, 6 inches. It was the 22nd long jump medal for the United States in an event it has dominated.
Henderson hit the sand, then bounded out the back of the pit and sprinted down the tarmac. After he saw his mark, he then sprinted the other way in elation.
“I knew it was far,” Henderson said. “It was over. I knew I won this competition after that jump. I knew I won.”
Henderson had eclipsed Luvo Manyonga of South Africa by half an inch.
Manyonga bore no grudges. “It feels good, because it’s a medal,” he said. “I’ve bene waiting for this for four years. I was slightly disappointed – I thought I got it, but he took it from me, no big deal, it’s competition.”
After all, Manyonga overtook Team USA’s Jarrion Lawson for the lead on his fifth jump.
Lawson wound up fourth at 27-0 ¾, finishing behind reigning Olympic champion Greg Rutherford of Great Britain, who jumped 27-2 ½.
Henderson’s gold was the first for Team USA since Dwight Phillips won in 2004. Carl Lewis won a record four straight long jump gold medals from 1984 to 1996. Mike Powell has the world and American record of 29-4 ½.
“I know a lot about Carl and Mike Powell and everyone,” said Henderson, though he said he doesn’t feel like he holds a similar place in history. “I still don’t feel like I’m in that category right now,” he said.
However, “Jumping Jeff,” as Henderson is dubbed on his Twitter page, doesn’t lack confidence.
He said he’ll get the world record next year. “That’s a promise,” he said.
Just like he did at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field in July, Henderson dedicated his win to his mother, who has had Alzheimer’s disease since he was in high school.
“She’s still fighting, she’s still living,” Henderson said. “She’s bedridden right now, so I did this for her. And know that I’m going to keep on fighting for her and (against) Alzheimer’s, because it happens to everyone.”
He’ll be thinking of her Sunday when he actually gets his gold medal. The ceremony was scheduled a day later because of the late hour.
“It’s like I’m in a dream, honestly,” Henderson said. “I can’t wait until tomorrow to get my gold medal.”
Well, if he asked, Joyner would probably let him borrow his.