RIO DE JANEIRO – Christian Taylor got the gold and Will Claye got the girl.
Taylor defended his triple jump title at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, with a season-best distance of 58 feet, 7 ¼ inches with Claye repeating as the silver medalist for Team USA at 58-3 ¼.
But Taylor was upstaged by his teammate during the post-competition celebration. Claye clambered into the stands and proposed to his girlfriend, 2008 Olympic hurdler Queen Harrison, who missed making this year’s Olympic team in the 100-meter hurdles by .02 seconds.
“This morning when I woke up, I was like, ‘Today is going to be the best day of my life,’” Claye said. “’I’m going to go out there and do what I have to do on the track first, and then make her my fiancée after that.’”
But Claye said he pushed the proposal to the back of his mind while he was jumping.
“When you’ve got to jump against Christian Taylor, you can’t think about anything else!” Claye said of his former University of Florida teammate. “I was worried about what I had to do on the track. I knew she was there. And I knew that (ring) wasn’t going anywhere. I was hoping nobody proposed to her first before I did.”
Taylor only had jumping to worry about. “I don’t know if I’d be able to do that,” he said of Claye. “He’s a good man. I’m glad he made the most of it.”
Taylor, 26, the reigning world champion and American record holder at 59-9, made the most of his time on the runway. He had the three longest jumps, and one of his fouls would have put him in the world record territory he is trying so desperately to reach.
Yet Taylor looked like a mirror image of himself from London four years ago.
In the event that breaks down as the “hop, step and jump,” Taylor’s leg sequence in Rio was right-right-left, compared to left-left-right in 2012.
“To do back-to-back is very difficult,” Taylor said. “It beats your body up; this is why I had to switch legs myself. The biggest challenge to be a triple jumper is staying healthy.”
With a 9:50 a.m. start, the earliest of any track and field event except the marathons, both men posted their best marks on their first jump. Taylor’s jump was also the longest jump in the world this year.
“That shows how amped we were,” Claye said. “We were ready to come out swinging. That kind of backlashed, because when you open up that big, it’s like, ‘Well, shoot, if I can do that on my first jump, the world record is coming down,’ and then you start to press a little bit.”
Taylor and Claye combined for the five longest jumps with Bin Dong of China winning the bronze at 57-8 ¼.
“I never thought on my first jump that that would be the gold medal jump,” Taylor said, “but I stayed strong and stayed ready. I’m really grateful that Dong put one out there because that really challenged me and that woke me up.”
Taylor has 18.30 written inside his shoe, which is the metric equivalent of 60 feet, ½ inch, the distance he needs to go to surpass the world record of 18.29 set by Jonathan Edwards of Great Britain in 1995.
Of his long foul, he said, “Unfortunately, I’ve been at the ‘almost’ mark for a long time. I have so much respect for Jonathan and that distance and now the fire burns even stronger, because I know it’s in the tank.
“It’s not a bad day at the office, but this is what pushes me. Now I will continue to push, the season’s not over and I’m healthy.”
Taylor, 26, is the first man to repeat as champion in the triple jump since Viktor Saneyev of the Soviet Union won three straight from 1968-76. The last U.S. jumper to repeat was Myer Prinstein in 1900 and 1904. He won the eighth gold medal for Team USA in the event and this is the fourth 1-2 finish for the U.S. – the others are Al Joyner and Mike Conley accomplishing the feat in 1984, Conley and Charles Simpkins in 1992 and Taylor and Claye in 2012.
Taylor was having patella issues with his left knee after his gold-medal performance in London. He found himself “going through the motions” instead of going all out.
He and coach Rana Reider decided the best option was to switch legs, which Taylor said, “seemed a bit foolish at the beginning but I have now been able to jump further and set the American record.
“I always say switching legs is like going with the opposite hand. It’s a lot of coordination and a lot of timing and muscle development.”
Going into the 2013 world championships as reigning world champion, Taylor did not make the podium.
“I just had to rethink my training and relearn the event,” he said. “The biggest thing was timing.”
By 2015, Taylor was back on top of the world with his American record at the world championships after which Edwards tweeted, “You gave me a scare my friend!”
On Tuesday, Taylor was duly impressed by Claye’s ability to get from the track to the stands, which is separated by a gully.
“I don’t know how he got over there because there’s a very large gap,” Taylor said. “I know we’re jumpers, but that’s quite risky. To witness that also, was very special. I turned around and saw him over there and then everyone’s saying ‘Awww.’ Then the camera zoomed in and I saw what was going on.
“That’s what it’s about – cherishing every second.”
Claye said the engagement ring, which he began designing before the Olympic Trials, was in his backpack, and he kept an eye on it throughout the competition, just in case.
“I’ve had it for a little while,” he said. “It was just a matter of when it would happen. And today was when it happened. Win, lose or draw. It was just something I felt like I had to do today.”
Only Harrison’s two best friends knew what he had in mind. His mother, father, brother, aunt and uncle were kept in the dark.
“They were like, man, you’re slick,” Claye said.
Claye said he and Harrison have been boyfriend and girlfriend for about four years as both competed on the international track and field scene.
“She’s so special to me,” he said. “She pushes me in so many ways. She’s helped me grow into the man that I am today.”
Harrison almost didn’t come to Rio. Claye said she didn’t know if she could handle it emotionally after her disappointment at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field in Eugene, Oregon. Claye had his own setback, missing the team in the long jump – in which he won the Olympic bronze medal in London – after placing third because he hadn’t met the qualifying standard. But he still had the triple jump.
“A few weeks later, she was like, ‘I’m going to come support you,’” he said.
And as the considerate boyfriend, and now fiancé, that he is, Claye proposed to Harrison while the heats of the 100-meter hurdles were taking place on the track, taking her mind off what might have been.
When he reached Harrison in the stands, Claye got down on one knee with the ring. “I told her that she was best friend. I told her that I want to grow old with her. I want her to be by my side for the rest of my life.
“She just burst into tears. She couldn’t believe it. She didn’t have any clue. It was just a heartfelt moment to so many eyes on this and for it to be such a special moment for the both of us.”
He said getting down on one knee was even more stressful than bounding down the runway with an Olympic medal on the line.
“The knee was stressful, man, because I didn’t know if she was going to say yes or not,” Claye said. “It was a great feeling. We’ve been together for so long and I just knew it was the time to take the next step.”