Keturah Orji competes in the women's triple jump at the 2018 USATF Outdoor Championships on June 21, 2018 in Des Moines, Iowa.
DES MOINES, Iowa – Keturah Orji and Tori Franklin are making the women’s triple jump twice the fun for Team USA.
Their back-and-forth Thursday at the 2018 USATF Outdoor Championships was remarkable because it has been uncommon for the United States to have one top-flight woman in the event, much less two.
“I know a lot of times when I was in high school people would say, ‘Oh, the U.S. triple jump isn’t strong. It’s weak,’” Orji said. “And a lot of times people wouldn’t come and watch the women’s triple jump either. It’s nice to have Tori here competing and we’re just looking to bring a lot more attention to it.”
The crowd at Drake Stadium was riveted by the event on the opening day of the four-day meet, which is part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series presented by Xfinity.
Orji prevailed to win her third national title in a row on the heels of her historic fourth straight NCAA championship for Georgia.
She hopped, stepped and jumped 14.59 meters (47 feet, 10 ½ inches) on her third attempt for a meet and stadium record while Franklin’s best effort was her last: 14.52 meters (47-7 ¾).
Last year, they also went 1-2, with Orji winning by a foot and a half. This time the margin wasn’t quite 3 inches.
“It’s just as disappointing because I almost had it,” Franklin said. “But it’s all right.”
Franklin doesn’t have a national championship on her resume, but she does have the American record and the top mark in the world this year.
Franklin went 14.84 meters (48-8 ¼) on May 12 at a meet in Guadeloupe to surpass Orji’s mark of 14.71 (48-3 ¼) set at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, where her fourth-place finish was a pleasant surprise for Team USA.
The day after she lost her record, Orji set a collegiate record of 14.62 (47-11 ¾) at the SEC Championships, which is the fifth-best mark of the year and makes her the fourth-best performer. But she fell short in her bid to regain the top American mark at that meet and at the NCAA Championships, where she also won the long jump.
“There’s always going to be more incentive when you lose a record,” Orji said.
As the competition began Thursday amid swirling winds, Orji went first with a mark of 14.34 (47-0 ¾), which was a new Drake Stadium record.
The 22-year-old actually thought she had the American record only to discover the board measurements next to the pit were set in the wrong place.
“My first jump I was a little bit confused,” Orji said. “It looked like I had jumped 49 feet. I just regrouped my mindset, because that meant my whole warmup was not as far as I thought it was.”
That stadium record only lasted about 4 minutes.
Franklin, 25, who exhorted the crowd to clap in rhythm as she raced down the runway, then went 14.48, doing a little dance after she bounded out of the pit, to take the stadium record and also set a new U.S. championships record. She broke Tiombe Hurd’s 14-year-old mark of 14.45.
Franklin didn’t even have to look at the billowing flags to assess the wind. Her big hair, anchored by a white headband with a bow, did that for her.
“My hair was in my face the majority of the time,” Franklin said. “And it was only when I was on the runway, the wind was like, ‘OK, now we don’t want you to see any more.’”
But she also knew, “OK, let me move back a couple of inches because the wind’s blowing.”
Orji fouled her next attempt, then had her winning 14.59 on her third. Both fouled their fourth jumps, then Franklin went only 13.57 on her fifth.
For Franklin’s sixth jump, it was “now or next meet.” She was close, but didn’t quite go far enough, taking a bow after she jumped out of the pit.
“I thought it would be bigger,” Orji said, “because the crowd went ‘Oooooh!’, so I was like, ‘OK, I probably have to respond,’ but luckily it wasn’t so I was able to get the win.”
Before Orji set her American record, Hurd’s 14.45 was the top American mark for 12 years. Before that, Sheila Hudson’s 14.41 set in 1996 stood for eight years.
“My grandma was saying that usually when people had the top mark,” Franklin said, “they’re not still competing and they don’t have someone else battling for it, so this is a really exciting time for women’s triple jump that we’re able to both be jumping at the same time and just keep (raising) that record hopefully.”
She credited her breakthrough to being in her second year with a new coach after moving back to Chicago from Michigan State.
“This year things have clicked,” Franklin said, “and I’ve been able to run faster on the runway and come faster off the board and have faster contacts off the ground. All of that has made a huge difference.”
She will be in the rest of the Diamond League meets this season, starting with Paris.
Orji, who was in her first meet as a professional athlete, is trying to get into those meets, so they can resume their rivalry amid the world’s top triple jumpers.
“I’m ready to be on the big stage now,” she said. “I’ve got to be in PR shape all the time when I’m going up against them, so it’s going to be difficult, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”