THE EVENTS OF the heptathlon — at least 6 of them — have always been a perfect match for JaiCieonna Gero-Holt (Emerald Ridge, Puyallup, Washington). And she’s working hard on that final one.
The Washington prep, now midway through her junior year, has put herself at the top of just about everybody’s list of exciting young heptathletes to watch. As a frosh, she set a national 9th-grade record with her 5401 score in placing 2nd at the USATF Junior Championships. Last year, she won the U20 with a soph-class record of 5552, then added gold at the Pan-Am Juniors.
All this despite having what at times might have been called a hate-hate relationship with the 800. “It’s not fun,” she admits. “For me, its anticlimactic. I don’t enjoy it, but I’m trying a new approach of looking at it differently and having a more positive mindset.”
Having just turned 17, she’s also looking at the challenges ahead of her. One idea she and coach Mike Strong have discussed is possibly trying to make it to the Olympic Trials. The qualifying standard in ’21 was 6000 (but hasn’t been announced yet for ’24). Along the way there would be the junior-class record of 5798 held by Anna Hall, the overall HSR of 5829 (also Hall). Then there’s the American Junior Record, 6018 — that one belongs to Kendell Williams (’14).
It’s important to note that Gero-Holt is already at the ’21 standard in the high jump. During last summer’s USATF Junior heptathlon, she cleared 6-1½. Her debut this year found her clearing 6-1¼ for a share of No. 4 on the all-time HS indoor list. Yet despite the fact that she can be quite competitive in that event — she placed 5th at USATF Indoor last winter — she remains solidly committed to the 7-eventer.
“I guess you could say I’ve always had a multis heart,” she explains. “I’ve always been tough. My grandmother taught me never to accept less of myself. And one thing too: it’s something that I just really enjoy. I love the buzz you feel after you’re done with the heptathlon. Legs burn; after the lactic acid goes away and I catch my breath, I’m able to be like, ‘OK, I’ve finished another one.’ Honestly, I do it out there to meet new people, to be able to share the pain that we go through.
“It’s not easy. And I know it’s not for the weak, but I have my story of who I am and I have my background. Honestly, I would say I was made to be a multi-athlete.”
The child of two basketball players, Gero-Holt made it to the track as a 7-year-old, the year she moved in with her grandmother, Elaine Gero. “I absolutely hated track when I first started,” she says. “I was already a multi-sport athlete. I did volleyball. I did recreational basketball — for like two seconds,” she says with a laugh. “I did swimming and gymnastics. I was such a good swimmer. If I didn’t do track, I would have been a swimmer. But my grandma and my mom were like, ‘Jai, do you want to try out track?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ But when it came the day to sign me up, I was like, ‘No, I’m good, I do enough.’ They signed me up anyway.
“The little practices, they were late. They start at 6 and you don’t get home until 9. You know, when you’re 7, all you want to do is fill your face and draw, do what 7-year-olds do, whatever you want. The discipline, the consistency of track, I was like, ‘I don’t wanna do it.’ I was that kid that made up headaches, cried about stomachaches, my knee hurt, my back hurt, everything hurt. I didn’t want to be out there.
“But then I actually got a little good, you know? I was like, ‘OK, that’s not too bad.’ Over time, my coach noticed how long I was and then my throws coach noticed, even though I was small, how strong I was. I could throw the shot at 8 years old. I don’t know if you know, but I have really long hands. My fingers are really — some would say — abnormally long. My fingers could cover that little 6-pounder. And I could jump. So I did the triathlon, and it went on from there.”
The role of her grandmother as primary caregiver to Gero-Holt has been instrumental in her rise in the sport. “My grandma is one of the most selfless people I have ever met. She has given her life for her children and for me, and honestly, I’m forever grateful because I have what most kids don’t have from a from a 2-parent home.
“I don’t know where I would be without her. She is someone that drives me insane. But then the next minute I’m like, ‘OK, wait, no, she loves me. I love her. This is just how she’s showing she loves me, you know?’ The older I get, the more I understand why God put me in the position, and gave me the story that he gave me, because he loves me and he wants me to succeed. So he blessed me with a grandmother that set that foundation that I believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself… When you don’t love yourself, I love you. When you’re not confident, I am here for you. She is my other pair of legs, you know? If I broke my wings, she would give me the wings off her back.”
Another key to Gero-Holt’s success is Coach Strong, whom she met through her friends, vaulting’s famous Moll twins. Strong drives in from Olympia — a 3-hour round trip — to work with her on a regular basis. She says, “I’ll be honest. I’m a hardheaded person. He’s a hardheaded person. We’re both stubborn. We’re both people who say what’s on our mind… He’s been very patient with me… I’ve never had a doubt that Coach Strong will get me to where I need to go.”
Strong and Emerald Ridge coach Bob Frey coordinate Gero-Holt’s workouts during the school season. Says Frey, “Coach Strong and I are on the same page, which is a critical balance.”
Gero-Holt adds, “They coordinate everything. We’ve had hiccups, of course, but we’ve never had an issue, I’m happy to say.”
The partnership has paid off. In her first two years in high school, Gero-Holt has won 6 state titles: 2 each in the 100H and high jump plus wins in the long jump and javelin. Last May she set a State Meet record in scoring 38 points, helping Emerald Ridge to its first team title.
This winter, Gero-Holt is planning to compete at the USATF Indoor multis in Indianapolis in late January. Outdoors, she’s looking at the Texas Relays, Mt. SAC, Arcadia — “whatever meets will help give me good competition for the Trials.” She adds, “I’ll also be trying for the U20 championships, just so if I don’t happen to make it to the Trials, my season doesn’t end in June. Those are the biggest things… and always, aiming to be a better — not athlete — but person than I was last season. I’m looking forward to a lot of good things.”
The precocious 11th-grader is also early in the game in another respect. She’s already made a verbal commitment to Illinois. “I kind of already knew I was going to go there before I even started the recruitment process because Coach Strong was telling me about this guy named Petros, who had all this experience, who coached Anna Hall, who coached Kendell Williams, who has a million-and-one of these Olympians that he has coached.”
On the first day of recruiting, Petros Kyprianou — already a 3-time USTFCCCA National Coach of the Year before he came to Illinois in June ’22 — was the second recruiter to get Gero-Holt on the phone. She recalls, “I let all the coaches do the talking the first time, but just the way he was talking, he seemed so passionate, so hungry for his athletes to be the best that they could be. And he coaches similarly to Coach Strong. You know, you want someone to build on what you’ve already been doing.
“My visit was absolutely amazing. Their vibe, their energy — I could see myself practicing with them, having a blast, but still being able to get down to business when it’s time.” Gero-Holt, who wants to major in business, also cites Illinois’ high-ranked business school, and its proximity to the University of Chicago (yes, she’s already planning her MBA program).
An open, expressive talker, Gero-Holt doesn’t hide her strong religious faith. She concludes, “You can do all things that He has a plan for you and He will prosper you. If you stick to what He has for you and stick to what you love and your passion, you will go far. I know that I have not lived a lot of life, but from just how far I’ve come at my young age and where I want to go, I want others to succeed. You know, I want to see others be happy. The message is to fight every day. Every day is going to be a fight. And every day you’re not gonna always be motivated. You’re not going to always wanna get out of bed, but you have to fight. And that’s how you become successful.”