THE WINNER OF 6 of 7 Olympic and outdoor World golds on offer since ’11—the exception being ’13 when he earned WC bronze—this year Christian Taylor went from training on one of the four corners of a soccer pitch in the pandemic spring to a sequence of seven meets and the world outdoor lead, 57-7¾ (17.57). He views his year as a success tempered by the awful realities 2020 featured for the entire world.
“I would say my approach was always the same,” says the 30-year-old former Florida Gator. “Whenever I compete, whenever I train, I strive to be the best, whether it’s the best of that day, whether it’s, you know, the best triple jumper in the competition or whatever. So I never get off the gas with that. This is always my mindset, but there is also that level of reality that is humbling and it hits you in the end. You know, it is difficult to be the best triple jumper if you don’t have access to a sandpit.”
For a quarter of the year he did make do without a proper place to land. “There were 3 months that I actually would traditionally have been in spikes and just getting the reps in with jumps and I was not able to do it,” he says. “So my mentality is always to try to get the best out of myself, but to say that I could have jumped 58 [feet], which I obviously didn’t, you know, it just did not happen. And I think there was really just that sense of reality that always hits.
“But at the end of the day I strive to be the best in the world. And then I thought, ‘You know what? The thing I can control is making sure I finish the year with the world lead.’ [’19 WC bronze medalist Hugues Fabrice Zango jumped 58-3¾/17.77 indoors before lockdowns hit].
“Though the circumstances were different, I still want to put that stamp that I was still the best in the world. And that [coach Rana Reider] and I still have work that we could do, and we’re still focused on the World Record. But you know what? Even in these times we found a way to make it work and that’s what we did.”
The Covid crisis has birthed a stock question from track writers to inventive problem-solving athletes: “Have you any humorous tales to tell of training during lockdown?”
“I can’t think of anything top of the head, because unfortunately, it never seems funny when you are in it,” says Taylor, who trained this spring with Reider’s group in Jacksonville, as per his customary schedule. “If we were at a track and the police came and told us we had to get off, this was not so fun.”
But wait. “Actually I can think of one,” Taylor exclaims after processing in background for a moment. “I find it quite funny now looking back, but it was very frustrating at the time. We were in the initial lockdown and, you know, they were saying only essential workers can go and work and everyone else stay at home.
“So everyone was messaging coach, ‘What do we do? We’re not essential workers. This work is essential to us, but what are we supposed to do?’ And he said, ‘Look, I can send you guys workouts. Find a way to do them. Obviously I cannot tell you you can’t go on the road. There’s nothing I can do.’ And believe it or not, a group of us, maybe four of us, said, ‘Look, we’re going to go on the soccer field. We’re going to freaking be on the four corners of the soccer field and work out just so we can at least see each other.’
“Of course if anybody ever came out we’d say, ‘We’re on the four corners of the pitch. We are really implementing social distancing at its greatest.’ And believe it or not, two ladies came walking by the soccer field and they called the police on us. So we said, ‘Look, it’s no problem. The ladies can say there are four athletes out here but we are completely a field apart.’
“And the police came and said, ‘Look, it’s been reported that you guys are training. You can’t be out here.’ And we thought how funny this was because these ladies were out here. They were essentially telling on themselves also. So of course we were saying when the track opens back up we can’t wait to see them and give a piece of our mind. But again, once time had passed we thought, ‘This is not even a priority. We just need to get back to a track somehow and make it happen.’”
As the world opened up incrementally, in July Taylor competed twice in Florida. The second outing in Bradenton—with a 56-8w (17.27) the best mark of his series—comprised part of the Inspiration Games virtual comp organized by the Zürich DL folks. Although Pedro Pablo Pichardo across the Atlantic in Lisbon pipped Taylor with 57-1 (17.40), the 8-time World No. 1 Ranker was able to savor a small morsel of competition. (Note: T&FN doesn’t treat these virtual affairs as true competition, and they don’t count as part of head-to-head records.)
Taylor, listening to his heart as well as his head, nonetheless hankered to get across the pond to compete in Europe and he made that happen. “Of course it was planned,” he says. “Really, we had to lay out between my coach, my fiancée, my agent—and with actually a lot of work with immigration—finding a way to get over to Europe to give me the chance to compete. As you know—and I don’t want to go starting any fires, but—as a Nike athlete, I do actually have a required amount of appearances that I have to do under my contract. So for me, this was first and foremost a priority. We had to find a way to get this done.
“Secondly, my fiancée [’12 Olympic 100H 7th-placer Beate Schrott] is Austrian, and so with the circumstances actually being much safer over in Europe, I thought if I can get over there, I can, of course, be reunited with her, but then also I had the chance to have a season. Because I knew a majority of my competitors would have been over there, would have been competing, and I’d never want to give anybody else a competitive edge over me, you know?”
“So with the summer kind of folding out the way it did, I was able to make it over to Europe and then have almost a full-fledged season—compete with, yeah, I would say the best athletes in the world and, and still fine-tune and see where I stand going into 2021 and in hopes of again defending a title.”
In August and September, Taylor got to 5 meets capped by his victory with the outdoor world lead in Berlin. His sequence began with—the Austrian Champs? “I got to be an honorary guest,” he explains, “and they said, ‘Look, no matter what happens, you cannot win. You know, you’re an honorary guest, you cannot stand on the podium ’cause you are not Austrian.’ But I said, ‘Look, I need a competition. This is my home track and maybe I can even inspire some up-and-comings, you know, just show them actually what the triple jump is.’
“And it was quite exciting. They, they did a lot of things to keep the fans safe, placing chairs 2m apart and things like this, but we still actually got a pretty solid number out there and the spectators could really clap us on so it was a lot of fun.”
Taylor sends profuse encomiums toward Reider, with whom he has worked since 2012. “Rana, my coach, was phenomenal,” he says. “I really applaud him and maybe find him a coach of the year, a man of the year for this year, because I mean, he was really just on his feet, did not let one blow throw his focus off, and with every week we had access to something.
“The only thing was it was not traditional track & field training. We were going to the beach, we were going to turf fields. We were finding a CrossFit gym. We were just doing whatever we could to just make it work until things cleared up. And there were times where the [C19] rates would drop a little bit and things would become open and we’d say, ‘OK, now we have track access again,’ and 2½ weeks later it shut down again for another 2 weeks because some people tested positive and they had to be safe.
“So it was really a struggle, and mentally I would say from the athlete standpoint, I was just completely done in the middle of the summer and the heart of the summer, which is the worst time to feel burnt out.
“And again, Rana said, ‘You know what? We cannot back off. We have to stay on it until the Olympics are canceled officially. Until then we have to be prepared to defend the title, we have to be prepared to go and compete with the best in the world.’ Because for those in Europe, those in Asia, the circumstances were completely different. You know, we saw actually results still being produced in China.
“In Rio, the bronze medalist [Bin Dong] was Chinese, you know, so we thought, look, ‘He still has access to facilities so we need to be prepared.’ So all of this is to say it was very challenging and [in Florida] we were really in the heart of it, but come July I was able to get a flight in and get to Europe. And then, yeah, my dreams were answered. My summer opened up and I could really compete and train in a safe way.”
Taylor also devoted time and energy to his role as President of The Athletics Association with particular attention to IOC Rule 50 modification and WADA reform initiatives. Expect more news from TAA at the top of 2021.
But another au courant question to elite athletes in 2020 is, “Have these unusual circumstances led you to experiment with training techniques you might not have tried in a normal season?”
“For sure,” Taylor says. “We bounded a lot more on turf and this was basically an experiment as I’m getting older, I’m over 30, now I get to be in the experienced realm of athletics. Rana just said, ‘You know what, since we don’t have access to the track and we have a turf field, let’s just see how often we can do resisted bounds, plyos, and see how the body reacts.
“With my knee [not that T&FN has ever had to report a serious injury], I can only normally do a certain number of plyos on a hard surface. And we found out that on the softer surface, I can almost do double the plyos and still not have the flareup from my knee.
“So we thought this is something that we can implement moving forward, and maybe even could be a part of the longevity aspect, that I can get to the [Fabrizio] Donato stages, trying to medal at 37, and the Nelson Évoras. I have a lot of respect for these guys. Obviously 30-something is not old, but to think at that age you guys are still medal contenders—this is the place I want to be. I’m not ready to give up the spot. And we thought maybe we found something [to support this goal] in the midst of all these things that were going on.”
With a 2020 competition year on his résumé against the odds, Taylor as he prepares for his second Olympic title defense rejects that shopworn trope frequently applied to great athletes in his position.
“No, I’ve never had and for certain do not have the mentality that the target is on my back,” he says. “You know, if I’m speaking to the media and they want to say, ‘You’re the defending titlist and people have to…’
“Fine, I can go along with it, but if I’m being really honest, my mindset is any given day, the same way that I came in in 2011 and won the World Championships as a junior out of college: I decided, you know what? I’m going to have the snowball effect. I’ve proven myself on the international level, I’m ready to go, I can’t wait till London to prove myself again, show people that this was not a fluke and continue this throughout the thing.
“But every day is a chance to either get better or allow somebody else to take this from you. And this is really my mentality at every competition, especially at championships. I think no one has given me the medal, no one will give me the gold medal. I have to earn it. And on any given day, you know, it could be somebody’s day, and I pray and I prepare that it’s mine. That’s really my mentality.”