A Long Journey Pays Off For Tara Davis

A third-round 22-9 at the NCAA gave Tara Davis the longest indoor leap in collegiate history. (ERROL ANDERSON/THE SPORTING IMAGE)

FOR TEXAS LONG JUMPER Tara Davis, big marks, big performances, records and championships are about being in the right place. Finding that spot took a 4-year journey.

That didn’t just mean being in Arkansas, competing in the NCAAs for a team from Austin. Her Collegiate Record 22-9 (6.93), which marked a reemergence to the form that made her the HS Indoor Recordholder in ’17, was about her getting her mind in the right place.

That wasn’t the case in Georgia the next year, when after a solid frosh campaign that didn’t meet her standards — and some lingering personal issues — she set on the path that led her to Texas and, as it turns out, two years mostly away from competition.

First there was Georgia’s not waiving transfer rules, which meant Davis had to sit out ’19 collegiately. Then came injuries and the C19 year that limited her to a cameo in the ’20 Big 12 Indoor, and at any rate, for most of that trip through the wilderness, she was no longer a 22-foot jumper anyway.

But in Fayetteville, on an electric Friday, the 21-year-old California native was the best collegian ever. After years of searching, she found the pot of gold.

“Definitely when I became mentally healthy,” Davis explained, effusively, in the post-jump Zoom press conference. “OK, what are we sad for? You’re living, you’re alive, you can do this. You’re on the runway, you’re healthy, let’s do the damned thing. It definitely hit this week when I jumped 22-5 [in training] on a 12-step approach. I thought, ‘Oh yeah, they done did it.’ Coming here, being at this track, I knew, ‘Here we go. I’m going to be pretty for y’all.’”

That’s the type of confidence and disposition that had been missing from Davis — who also boasts world-class hurdle credentials of 12.95 and 12.83w — on her journey to find her happy place. When she arrived at Texas, coach Edrick Floréal understood the challenge. It wasn’t about the track equivalent of Xs and Os.

“I’m a pretty good coach but I’m a better parent,” he says. “I’ve been around her; there are a lot of emotions, a lot of love, a lot of affection. She needs a lot of reassuring. She runs around, she’s bubbly and you can’t take that away, she needs to become what she will become. She’s a hugger, now I’m into hugging. Love and reassurance makes her feel comfortable. In the end, it’s not about long jumping or hurdling, it’s about two people going down the road of life.

“It’s great to see someone go from despondent, it’s not going to happen, to the point where she is blissfully happy. And this is just the beginning. People can overcome loads of crap and depression, wanting to quit, and then be so blissfully happy.”

Davis puts it in equally colorful terms.

“My confidence has been shot for these two years,” she says. “This has built my confidence up way higher. Now I have a big old head and I’ve got to keep it down. I have so much more in the tank. I finally hit it and I cannot wait for the future.”

Not that Xs and Os were irrelevant. Floréal set about changing her runup and it needed some time to take. That began happening at the Big 12 Indoor as she went a PR-equaling 21-11 (6.68), only to lose gold to Texas Tech’s Ruth Usoro in the sixth round.

That crushed Davis, but Floréal saw her finally respond to a new approach that he describes as, “When she hits the board, it’s like being shoved into the air, it feels like an ejector seat. It lets her use her athleticism and she’s really athletic.

“We’ve been talking about that for 3 years, I don’t think she really believed it until probably 2 weeks ago. I’ve been telling her, ‘Give me what I want. Just give me what I want.’”
In the aftermath of those Big 12s, Davis saw the future, even though it was painful at the time.

“That hurt right there, but that was the fuel to the fire in my heart,” she says. “I had a mindset no one else can know about. I went out, did my best.”

At the NCAA, she set the stage with a 22-¼ (6.71) on her second jump, with what she describes as a bungled approach, that had her knowing her next jump would be special. It was. She passed her last three attempts.

“It feels amazing, it’s been a long time coming,” she says. “Ups, downs, injuries all over the place. I finally got the jump I was wishing and praying for. It feels good to be a Collegiate Recordholder and even to touch 22ft [c6.70] again.

“I only had three jumps. I know if I had three more I could have gone further. We have to wait for that, we have to wait and relax. It feels good to be up at the top with amazing athletes that I’m now ranked with. I’m excited for what’s in store.”

As was the case back in ’17, “what’s in store” is a career that once again has a high ceiling. □