Christian Taylor doesn’t want to win easily. He lives for “the last-jump steal."
Sure, Taylor will take it if his first jump turns out to be the longest of the competition, which was the case at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 when he won his second straight triple jump gold medal.
But that was an oddity that had never happened before or since.
“I just love the thrill of the chase and having to really fight for it and take it away from someone,” Taylor said. “I take a lot of pride in that. It’s a little more painful for them, because they’re hoping that I’ll foul or I’ll fall short.
“But the victory feels a little sweeter when you are able to steal it from someone on the last one.”
Taylor, 26, has made winning on the sixth jump his signature since high school. “Steals” should be a column in his statistics.
“You can never really count me out till it’s over,” the Georgia native said.
Taylor, the American record holder at 59 feet, 9 inches, opened the Diamond League season in Doha earlier this month by, yes, winning on his last gasp. On Saturday, he’ll compete in the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, facing top rival Will Claye, who won the silver medal at the last two Olympics behind Taylor.
They’ve gone head-to-head since they were college freshman. In their final collegiate meet, Taylor said, “He was leading until the last jump, and I took it away.”
Last year’s Pre Classic featured an epic duel as Claye, the defending champion, went 57-7½ on his sixth jump. In vintage fashion, Taylor uncorked a 58-3¼ hop-step-and-jump to win and break Claye’s Hayward Field record in the process.
Besides going 1-2 at two straight Olympic Games, Taylor was first and Claye placed third at the 2011 world championships.
However, Claye holds a 19-17 edge in their lifetime series. “It’s been very exciting,” Taylor said. “It’s great when you have a rivalry between two people week in and week out. I know he’s in top shape and he’s going to be chasing after me as I am him. I think it’s going to be a great competition.”
In Rio, Taylor soared 58 feet, 7 ¼ inches with Claye going a personal best of 58-3 ¼. Claye then went the extra mile by clambering into the stands and proposing to his girlfriend, hurdler Queen Harrison.
“I was very happy for him and Queen,” said Taylor. “Obviously, in his head, he imagined that he would get the gold and do the proposal. Maybe I took a little wind out of his sails.”
The pair are expected to carry their rivalry to the USATF Outdoor Championships in Sacramento, California, in late June and then back to London in August for the 2017 world championships at the Olympic stadium. Taylor is the defending world champion, having won in Beijing in 2015 with his American-record jump, which was the second longest in history.
Taylor’s greatest rival, however, hasn’t competed in nearly 14 years. Jonathan Edwards of Great Britain set the world record of 60 feet, ¼ inch at the 1995 worlds in Gothenburg, Sweden, when Taylor was 5 years old.
“I’m second-best all time – and it kills me,” Taylor said, “because I’m 8 centimeters away from the world record. That is really what I am chasing now. I’ve been lucky to have early success, both world championships and Olympic Games, but now I’m saying, ‘Well, I need to be a part of history,’ and that would be having that WR by my name, stating that I was the best to ever do this event.”
Eight centimeters is just over 3 inches, which Taylor has said is the equivalent of a cigarette or a stick of gum. After his American record, Edwards tweeted, “You gave me a scare my friend!”
As motivation the past few years, Taylor has written 18.30 inside his shoe. That’s the metric mark he needs to be the world record holder. Edwards jumped 18.29.
“Nike has been nice enough to embroider it on the inside or put it on the back of my spikes,” Taylor said. “It reminds me of what I’m really chasing.”
In Rio, he came close, landing in world-record territory. Unfortunately, Taylor had started past the legal mark, and the red flag went up for a foul.
He is determined to do whatever it takes to get to that imaginary line in the sand.
“Unfortunately, I believe there’s a lot I need to do,” Taylor said.
He has changed his diet, losing six or seven pounds since his American record in 2015. “The lighter you are, the farther you will fly,” Taylor said.
He has also changed his sleeping habits to help with his recovery. Taylor used to sleep 6 to 7 hours a night and now sleeps 8 to 10, which for a night owl like him was a major concession.
“Those seem like minor details, but I think these things add up to those little centimeters that are keeping me away from my big goal,” Taylor said. “It’s really just about discipline; I’m at the stage where I’m only getting older. I need to capitalize before it gets too late.”
Taylor is featured this month in GQ magazine in an article, “The Real-Life Diet of Christian Taylor, Who Ditched Carbs and Feels Fantastic.”
In the Q&A, Taylor describes how he gave up pizza and pasta, which had contributed to inflammation in his joints.
“Just to be associated with GQ was really cool,” he said. “It’s a well-known magazine and something I grew up looking into.”
Since the article appeared, Taylor said other athletes have asked him how they can incorporate his diet into their daily routines.
He does allow himself to cheat a little. After he won the gold medal in Rio, Taylor celebrated with cake and glass of champagne.
“I hadn’t had a dessert for a little while, so to have that and not feel any guilt was really nice,” he said, but within two days he was back on his strict regimen.
“I had a competition two weeks later, so I couldn’t fall too far off my diet.”
While the post-Olympic season can be a letdown for some athletes, Taylor floated above it. Going into fall training, he said, “The momentum from the Olympics is still very fresh and very real and everyone who hasn’t seen you since Rio is still re-living that moment. They want to tell you where they were when you were competing and how they were part of it.”
Taylor trained the month of January in South Africa, which allowed time for reflection.
“You get those quiet moments, where it’s like, ‘The medals are won and the competition is over. OK, now what am I working toward?’” he said. “Tokyo 2020 seems so far away now. It truly is a high that you come off of, but then I say I have world championships, I have personal medals I want to achieve in track and field.”
Although Taylor is a two-time world champ, he is seeking to become the first triple jumper to win back-to-back global titles. He also wants to equal Viktor Saneyev of the former Soviet Union, who won three straight Olympic gold medals from 1968 to 1976.
“The most impressive thing is that’s 12 years of dominance,” Taylor said, “but the crazy thing is we don’t even have a reigning world champion that has repeated, so if I’m able to pull that off in London, that would be pretty special to me.”
Taylor was the defending world champ when he placed fourth in 2013, with Claye winning the bronze. Because of problems with his left knee, Taylor subsequently changed legs in his jumping pattern, and after he became accustomed to the switch, he posted even better results than before.
One of the biggest changes in his pursuit of the world record has been geographical. He followed long-time coach Rana Reider first to Loughborough, England, and then to Arnhem, a Dutch city near Amsterdam, where he cruises around the campus on a longboard.
“The training center is phenomenal but it is far from home, far from comfort,” Taylor said.
But for Diamond League, where he has won five season-ending trophies, he called it “ideal.”
“I never have jet lag when I’m going to my competitions,” Taylor said, “and that plays a huge factor.”
Unless, of course, his competition is in the United States, as it is this week. Taylor is also encountering a bit of culture shock.
“I’ve been feeling European at times,” he said. “I’m coming back and I hear about the NBA Finals, or so many things that happen in the U.S. I miss now. I don’t even have a TV over there, so I really feel out of the loop. And social media, I try to stay away from negativity. I try to keep myself in a positive vibe and when I come back I get a rush of all the news that’s been going on.”
On weekends, Taylor often goes to visit his girlfriend, Beate Schrott, an Olympic hurdler from Austria. They met at the 2011 worlds and then saw each other at training camps. They got to know one another better when Schrott joined the group officially in 2015, though she has since returned to her home country.
Taylor envisions many more trips to Eugene, including the 2021 world championships, and also hopes to compete through the 2024 Games. “Los Angeles is bidding, so we’ll see what’s going to happen,” he said.
Taylor could even be going for his fourth Olympic gold medal in 2024.
“That,” he said, “sounds good to me.”
Stealing it on his last jump sounds even better.