Keturah Orji competes in the Women's Triple Jump at the 2020 Toyota USATF Indoor Championships on Feb. 14, 2020 in Albuquerque, N.M.
Keturah Orji has had her eye on 15 meters for more than four years.
She even printed out “15m” in a large font and taped it on her ceiling.
“When I was lying in bed, I would see it,” Orji said. “It’s a number I’ve been shooting for since jumping 14.71 at the 2016 Olympics.”
Orji, whose nickname is “KO,” came mighty close to knocking out that number Sunday. The four-time national champ uncorked a prodigious leap of 14.92 meters (48-11 ½) on her first triple jump attempt of the 2021 season to regain the American record.
“This gives me a lot of confidence,” Orji said, “because if I continue to improve on my mark of 14.92, I think jumping over 15 meters will likely win a medal at the Olympics.”
It’s the longest women’s triple jump performance in the world so far this year. In 2019 – the last full season pre-pandemic – only world champion Yulimar Rojas of Venezuela (15.41) and Shanieka Ricketts of Jamaica (14.93) had better legal marks. (Liadagmis Povea of Cuba posted a wind-aided 15.05.)
“I’m just really excited to see how this year goes after this opener,” Orji said.
The 25-year-old set her first American record of 14.53 meters (47-8) – breaking a 12-year-old mark - while winning the 2016 NCAA title for the University of Georgia. She improved it to 14.71 (48-3 ¼) at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, where her fourth-place finish at age 20 was the highest ever for a Team USA woman in the triple jump.
In 2018, Orji lost the American record to rival Tori Franklin, who went 14.84 (48-8 ¼).
While Orji added a centimeter to her personal best in 2019, she was disappointed by her seventh-place finish at the world championships.
Last year Orji changed coaches to work with Jeremy Fischer. In October, she moved full-time to the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center in California.
Because Orji now has roommates, she didn’t write any goals on the ceiling. Orji wasn’t even sure that 15 meters was in the picture going into the low-key Chula Vista High Performance meet.
“My coach was saying, ‘You’re in great position, your approach has looked great, you’re ready to jump far,’ but I really just was unsure,” Orji said.
She had opened her season in early April in the long jump, going 6.85 (22-5 ¾) in another Chula Vista meet, but this was her first triple jump.
“When they said the distance, I just smiled,” Orji said. “I looked at my coach and I hugged him, and he was like, ‘Do you believe me now?’ I was like, “I believe you.’”
Consistency is Key
Although it was a windy day and she had some fouls, Orji’s third attempt was 14.74 meters, which also surpassed her previous personal best.
Franklin, competing at the higher-profile Oregon Relays on Saturday, had a winning distance of 14.10 (46-3 ¼) in a rain shower.
Orji, who decided to compete at home because of the better weather conditions, said she appreciates having a rival.
“We really push each other,” said Orji, who represents the Atlanta Track Club. “I know that my best jumps always come out when she’s there and her best jumps always come out when I’m there.”
So far, Orji and Franklin, 28, are the only American women who have attained the Olympic qualifying standard of 14.32 meters, which gives them a leg up on making Team USA.
“The women’s triple jump has been a weak event in America, so that’s why it’s so exciting to see us now demolishing the Olympic standard and seeing what we can really do at big competitions,” Orji said.
They last went head-to-head at the U.S. indoor championships on Feb. 14, 2020, where Orji set an indoor personal best of 14.60 and Franklin won with an American record of 14.64.
Orji thought she was primed for a great Olympic year. “I was still a little bit nervous about the coaching change, but after I had jumped 14.60 indoors, I was like, ‘We’re off to a great start,” she said. “The pandemic really killed my motivation more than anything else. Everything had been postponed or cancelled. I felt like there was no reason for me to train.”
Orji, a native of New Jersey, said her family helped restore her purpose. She was quarantined with her older sister and they would work out together. Orji bought dumbbells and would run stadium steps or find other creative ways to stay in shape.
In July, she got a gym membership, but had to do grass workouts since tracks were still closed.
Amid the uncertainty, Orji decided it was the right time to take a different kind of leap: She got married. Orji and Kisean Smith, a former 800-meter runner for the University of Georgia, had a small wedding on August 29.
Although she was reluctant to have a long-distance marriage, Orji’s long distance in the triple jump Sunday “really shows that it was worth the sacrifice,” she said.
The final verdict on the move could come at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Looking back on the Rio Games in 2016, Orji realizes, “Dang, I could have snagged a medal.”
She was only 3 cm off the podium, which is about an inch.
“I definitely was extremely nervous going in,” Orji said, “because there are people that I had been watching on TV that I was now competing against.”
She was the last athlete to qualify for the 12-woman final and told herself, “Shake off those nerves and just try to execute right now, don’t focus on all the other stuff.”
Orji broke the American record on her first jump.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Ohmigosh, I did more than I expected to do,’” said Orji who was the only Team USA woman to make the final since Sheila Hudson finished 10th in the first Olympic women’s triple jump in 1996. “I was kind of was content at that time. I didn’t come for a medal. I’m 20 and I’m just happy to be there and I broke the American record.
“Maybe if I just changed my mindset a little bit more I could have gone further.”
Orji captured her first major international medal at the 2019 Pan American Games, but it was in the long jump, where she took the silver.
“I always like to remind people that I’m a triple jumper and long jumper,” said Orji, who was the first woman to win eight NCAA titles in field events – seven in the triple jump and one in the long jump. “I don’t even know which event is my favorite. I really love both. I just have always done better in triple - that’s why people know me as a triple jumper - but I will not let long jump go until I have to.”
Orji will compete in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Track and Field in both events in June in Eugene, Oregon. Unfortunately, the Olympic schedule puts the long jump qualification on the same morning as the triple jump final, making a double incredibly difficult.
If Orji jumps a “crazy” distance at the Trials in the long jump, she said, “maybe my coach will say, ‘Let’s try to do both,” but I don’t think we’ll jeopardize the triple jump for the long jump.”
Training With A Role Model
Besides having a new coach, a bonus to moving to Chula Vista has been training with Olympic and world champion Brittney Reese, 34.
“She’s so encouraging and supportive,” Orji said. “She wants to see you do well. She’ll teach you and she’ll critique you if she needs to, so she’s really a perfect training partner.”
A poster of Reese was on Orji’s wall when she was growing up, which initially made for some awkwardness. “It’s become normal between us,” Orji said, “but definitely at first, I was like, ‘I cannot believe this.’”
Now Orji is a role model and embraces the opportunity. On her website, she wrote: “I want my career to signify that you do not have to possess a certain personality, come from a certain background, or look a specific way to accomplish great things.”
“I went with that quote, because I feel like there are a lot of things that are different about me, starting with my personality,” Orji said. “I don’t like much attention. I’m kind of reserved and more quiet. People will say you can’t tell how far I jumped from my reaction, because it’s the same reaction after every jump.”
Well, Orji did let that smile sneak out after the American record and she admits to being much more emotional playing board games or card games.
People often remark that Orji is much shorter than they thought she would be. The former gymnast is 5-foot-5.
“I’m usually one of the shortest jumpers out there and sometimes people put a limit on you because of your height,” she said.
And she also refuses to let others define how she should look. “I feel like as women, people expect you to look a certain way,” Orji said. “Women will get their hair done for competitions, and they’ll put on makeup and eyelashes, and I think that’s great, but I don’t think it should be expected of us. Men don’t have to put on makeup or have their hair freshly done when they compete.
“They just come out and compete as themselves and put on a great show by being excellent at what they do, and they are praised for that. I think that can be the same for women.”
When she was in college, Orji started a mentorship program called Amara’s Pride for eighth-grade girls in Athens, Georgia, with the mission of “having a black women trying to inspire young black girls to be excellent in everything they do and to believe in themselves.”
Orji, whose father is Nigerian, adapted the name from her own middle name, Amarachukwu, because Amara means grace. The word “pride” came from a lion’s pride.
She still mentors some girls individually. Orji, who earned an undergraduate degree in financial planning and a masters in sport management, is also pursuing another masters degree in accounting, which is her husband’s profession.
After all, she does like numbers. When Orji competes next at the Mt. SAC Relays on May 9, she has one in particular in mind.
“I’m just going,” she said, “to keep shooting for 15 meters.”