DOHA, Qatar – Defending triple jump champion Christian Taylor certainly dug himself into a hole at the IAAF World Championships.
He was one hop, step and a jump away from an early exit in Sunday night’s final.
While attempting to break the 24-year-old world record, a mark that has long eluded him, Taylor “put it all out there.” All he got for his efforts were two red flags.
If he fouled a third time, Taylor would not be among the final eight jumpers awarded an additional three attempts.
“I try to play it cool, but my heart was racing,” Taylor admitted. He told himself, “You belong here, slow down, relax, and don’t touch the board, and get to the final.”
Meanwhile, teammate Will Claye was holding down first place.
“You can never count Christian out,” Claye said with a laugh.
Taylor played it safe, got into the final and overtook Claye, his longtime friend and rival, to win his fourth triple jump world championship. Two years ago, he became the first athlete to win three world titles in the event and two in a row.
Taylor, who is also the two-time defending Olympic champion and American record holder, won with a season-best distance of 17.92 meters.
Claye was second at 17.74, followed by Hugues Fabrice Zango of Burkina Faso at 17.66.
“I just think it’s a dogfight, man,” Claye said.
Coming in as the world leader at 18.14, Claye won his second straight silver in the event behind Taylor to go along with two bronze medals in 2011 and 2013 when Taylor didn’t make the podium. Claye also won the last two Olympic silver medals behind Taylor.
“It’s still a blessing to get the silver, the second best in the whole world, so I can’t complain about that,” Claye said. “So I’m happy for that. And I just want more. Next time I want more.”
Claye had the best overall series and was the early leader as Taylor struggled. Claye went 17.61 on his first attempt, then improved to 17.72.
Even his mark of 17.53 on his third attempt was better than Taylor, who leaped 17.42.
However, while Claye stalled at 17.74 on both his fourth and fifth attempts, Taylor sailed to 17.86 on his fourth and 17.92 on his fifth.
“Once I was in the final, I knew, ‘OK, just go for it again,’” Taylor said. “When I lay my head at the hotel, I never want to think, ‘Did I give it my all?’ So I’m always going to go for it. I’m always going to try to put on the biggest show possible. If I keep getting that red flag, that sucks, but at least you know there’s something in the tank."
Claye had one more chance. He went 17.66 after his final trip down the runway.
And then Taylor had his “victory lap,” a jump with the title already in the bag, and he got the crowd clapping.
He was wearing his special Nike shoes that he called “a shout-out” to Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., whom he admires for his attitude and swagger.
The white shoes with gold trim have Taylor’s initials – just like Beckham wears his initials on his shoes – and the football player’s No. 13.
“I won the triple jump in Rio and then that night he did a triple jump in the end zone after making a touchdown,” Taylor said, “and I was like, ‘OK, I see that. I’m a big fan.’”
Taylor’s final jump went 17.54 meters, and then he clapped to the crowd and bowed.
Claye greeted him on the runway and they hugged, exchanging smiles and congratulations.
Taylor, 29, and Claye, 28, have known each other for more than a decade and competed together for the University of Florida.
“We’ve gone through the ranks together,” Claye said. “We’ve trained together, we’ve been through the mud together so this right here is another stop along the way. We’re always going to have that relationship even though when we get on the runway, we’re rivals. It’s never like buddy-buddy when we’re competing, but we always have a mutual respect and love for each other.”
Taylor said they push each other. “Whether in training or competition, I’m grateful that he’s always beside me,” he said.
Taylor now has a 27-23 edge. With the addition of long jump results, the score is now 31-30 according to the IAAF.
Claye considers himself “equally as good” in the long jump and won the Olympic bronze medal in the event in 2012 in addition to his triple jump silver. The schedule did not allow him to compete in both here, with both long jump and triple jump qualifying on Friday.
But he hopes to be a contender in both events at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Of course, if his prime in the sport had not coincided with Taylor’s, Claye could already be an Olympic gold medalist.
“If he wasn’t around, I probably wouldn’t be doing track anymore,” Claye said. “If I would have won all of those golds, I’d have been like, ‘All right, I got everything I wanted from the sport.’ I probably would have been doing something else now.
“I’m happy where I’m at. I think the chip on my shoulder that’s just growing each and every year is going to amount to something very special.”
While Taylor saved himself Sunday night, he’s also trying to save his livelihood. The triple jump is one of eight events that could be on the chopping block in the Diamond League.
“It was fierce,” Taylor said of the competition. “Even to the end, people were passing each other. But this is what we need to keep the triple jump alive. Hopefully we were a big enough bang that the IAAF says, ‘Hey we’ll keep you guys.’”