T&FN Interview — Keturah Orji

During a stellar collegiate career at Georgia, Keturah Orji picked off 8 NCAA titles. (VICTOR SAILER/PHOTO RUN)

“ANYONE THAT KNOWS ME knows I’m extremely competitive. And getting to live out triple jump and long jump and being an athlete is not an opportunity many people get.” Read on for Keturah Orji’s further thoughts on what drives her in this year which absent a devastating pandemic would have comprised an Olympic season—and the Georgia alum’s second full pro campaign.

A brief-captioned Orji Instagram post from June 12 encapsulates her current sentiments: “Missing this… #KOTheComp,” her words hovering next to a pair of bird’s-eye photos of Orji landing in the Rio triple jump pit. She placed 4th in that, her first Games. Naturally she’d like to reach the podium in Tokyo. We all miss it—achingly so as the interview below goes up during what would have been that once-in-4-years lovefest for the U.S. sport, a ’20 Olympic Trials.

When the OT goes off—amid heightened anticipation if that’s possible—a year from now Orji’s performance, and the expected clash with Tori Franklin, her superb domestic rival since ’18, promise to be a highlight among highlights. (Continued below)

Since ’13, Orji has raised up U.S. women’s triple jumping, a 1-woman wrecking crew of previous standards, as she claimed High School Records (topped by 44-11/13.69), World Youth podium spots in the LJ and TJ, the still standing American Junior Record (46-5¼/14.15), an outright AR in Rio (48-3¼/14.71), 8 NCAA crowns (including one in the LJ and 3 indoor TJs) and 4 USATF titles in and out.

She has been World Ranked 3 times, equaling the best total by an American ever, and her No. 4 in ’18 is the highest that any American has ever placed. All before reaching age 24 in March.

Last season, her first as a pro after finishing at Georgia with a bachelor’s in Financial Planning and masters in Sports Management, Orji put up a PR 48-3½ (14.72) placing 3rd at the Paris Diamond League behind World No. 1 Yulimar Rojas and Cuba’s Liadagmis Povea. Seven weeks later at the World Championships in Doha, she placed 7th in the TJ, following placings of 4th (’16) and 5th (’18) at the last two World Indoors.

She competed just once over the winter this year, placing 2nd at the USATF Indoor to Franklin. While Orji had never before lost to the AR holder, her best mark, an at-the-time AR of 47-10¾i(A)/14.60, was the equal-5th longest of her career and stoked her fire for the future.

We reached Orji by phone in Gainesville, where she prepares much of the time these days after a coaching change last fall. She filled us in on that move, the books she plows through at a rapid rate for an athlete on the go, training, this painful moment in America and more.

T&FN: How is your training going in this strange time?

Orji: Training has been going pretty well. I’m in Florida currently and a lot of things have opened back up. But for most of the coronavirus time period, I was actually in Georgia and the tracks did not close in Georgia. So I still was able to train on a track when I was in Georgia. The only thing I hadn’t had access to was a weight room and so I was using dumbbells. And I think I definitely lost muscle because dumbbells are not as effective as actually doing a whole weight series.

I also had stopped jumping. I was kind of just doing base training because at this point there were no meets on the schedule. There really was nothing, no certainty about what would be, what we would be doing. So I was kind of just staying in shape, doing some stairs, stadiums and things like that. Just basic training, staying in shape.

And then I came back to Florida once things started opening up again. The track is open here and I finally am getting back into doing speedwork with short sprints and wearing spikes again and doing some triple jump drills, a low level of triple jump drills and short approach, long jump drills. So it’s been great to kind of get back into things. The gyms are open here too now. So I’m lifting again, just trying to build that strength up, but it’s definitely been a kind of a roller coaster between everything closing and then trying to transition back in to training again and then possibly competing again.

T&FN: Who is coaching you?

Orji: My coach is Jeremy Fisher, who’s in California. It’s a little bit of a weird situation, but I changed coaches last minute and so I didn’t want to move directly to California. It was just a lot to move very quickly. So I was like, “Well, Jeremy is really good friends with [Florida assistant] coach Nic Petersen in Florida.” So I kind of work with both of them.

T&FN: So you worked with Petros Kyprianou up until the move?

Orji: Yes. After Doha I changed coaches. I don’t think there’s anything specific I wanted to change. I think I just needed a change. I had been with Petros since 2014 when I graduated high school and I just feel like there’s a season for everything. And I feel like I’ve progressed so much with him, but it’s kind of like, there was nothing more for us to do together. I felt like we were kind of doing similar workouts. I just felt like my body needed a change, which is what a lot of athletes feel like after leaving college.

And at the same time, Petros is a college coach and Jeremy Fisher is not. So Jeremy has a lot more time to devote just to me while Petros has to balance a collegiate team while also coaching me. And then he also leaves for meets with the college teams while Jeremy doesn’t have a college team that he needs to leave for meets with. So just trying to get a coach that had more time for me. And then also just trying to get my body to do new things and new drills and new exercises, just to change.

T&FN: Did you move to Florida before the coronavirus lockdown?

Orji: Yeah. I started training in November for the 2020 season so I moved to Florida and I’d gone to California a couple of times to work directly with Jeremy. And I was actually in California when the coronavirus thing really blew up. Then I had to fly back during that whole thing because all of my family’s on the East Coast. So I didn’t want to be too far.

T&FN: Completely understandable. Is there anything that you and Jeremy are particularly working on technique wise?

Orji: I think the first thing he wanted to start out with me was stopping me from preparing to jump. If you look at my approach, the last two steps usually I’m kind of bending down a little bit and preparing myself to take off. And he’s like, If we’re watching myself jump and you were to put a piece of paper over the screen and you couldn’t see where the board is, you shouldn’t be able to tell that I’m prepared, you shouldn’t be able to tell that I’m about to take off. It should look like I’m just running down the runway. But he’s like with me, If I cover up that board, I can still tell the board’s coming close because you’re prepping for it. So that was one of the first things we worked on, just trying to be smooth through the approach.

Another thing that we’re really going to work on is my second phase, which anyone that watches me knows is a weakness of mine. He was saying that my hop angle’s a little bit too high. I take off and go—my hop is just too high. And we were saying if I lower my hop I may be able to control my second phase a little bit more. ’Cause that’s another thing we’ve been working on. And then my landing is much better than it used to be, but I still think I’m losing several inches on it. So that was another thing we talked about too.

T&FN: Do you jump weak-weak-strong or strong-strong-weak?

Orji: I am a right dominant. So I take off on my strongest leg and my second phase is onto my weaker leg. (Continued below)

T&FN: Last year was your first season as a pro. How do rate the way it went for you?

Orji: I felt really great about everything last year, except for Doha, which is what hurts the most because that’s what everyone’s building up to. That’s what we’re most excited about, where you want to perform your best. The other day I was actually looking at all my marks. I always average out all my marks for the year. I had improved my average a lot. I think I had like about a 14.40 [47-3] triple jump average last year. And I performed well at Diamond Leagues, I competed well and I also had a 1-centimeter personal best.

So overall it was a really great year, but at Doha I feel like I had one of the lowest jumps of the whole year. So I was really upset looking at that, but it’s a learning experience and I’m still learning and adjusting to how the Diamond League schedule works and making sure you’re prepared for meets later on in the year. It’s just new to me because I was in college for most of the time that I’ve been competing. So I’m used to having more competitions and just different things like that. But overall, I can’t complain. It’s the best year I’ve had. I’m definitely happy, just looking to perform better at the prime time meets.

T&FN: What are your thoughts on this year’s indoor season? Brief but momentous in the sense it was going to be your leadup to a second Olympics after placing 4th in Rio. You jumped really well at the USATF Indoor yet lost to Tori Franklin for the first time. And lost your American Indoor Record.

Orji: Indoor season went really well. I didn’t have really an entire season, I competed only once. USA Indoors was actually my season opener. Indoors went really well. I actually have a blog on my website written about my feelings, about losing at USAs. And I was very happy to open up with a personal best and No. 2 all-time [47-10¾/14.60]. I think Jeremy and I were mostly excited because I had switched training and so we weren’t sure how my body would react to that. Some people take longer to adjust to new training. So I was nervous to go see how I would perform underneath this new training. So just to go out there and have a personal best kind of was like just looking up. I got really excited for the rest of the year.

I was like, “OK, perfect. We’re starting out on a great foot and we can just build on this.” And so I said, “I can critique some things, fix up some things and then go.” And then everything got shut down. So I definitely was looking up to it.

At first I was a little bit sad that everything got canceled, but I realized the bigger picture. I can see that doesn’t matter when it comes to people’s health and a pandemic. So I’m just having to look at it from another perspective and see that this is what’s most important and it’s great for me because I’m transitioning with a coach, and so I got an extra year to just get used to all the workouts and everything like that and then really see the effects of the training next year.

T&FN: How does Coach Fischer guide your training from the opposite coast?

Orji: Coach Nic watches me during my practices in Florida. So he’s giving me feedback live, but then Jeremy and I will watch video together sometimes online. So Nic always records all the jumps, all the running I do. And then he gives me feedback on what he thinks I need to improve, but I still go back and forth from Florida and California. Well, before the coronavirus, I was going back and forth. So it was like a month or 6 weeks in Florida and then a month or 6 weeks in California. So it was definitely a good balance. It wasn’t like I didn’t see Jeremy for months and then he’s trying to change things with me.

T&FN: On another note, I noticed on Instagram that you are a devoted reader. What on your reading list has captivated you lately?

Orji: So I started reading a lot more. I’ve always liked reading, but when I got to college, we were assigned a lot of reading so that was no longer a hobby. I was like, “I’m not reading for fun if I have to read for school.” So when I graduated and I had a lot more free time as a professional athlete, I was like, “I might as well start reading again,” and decided I was going to challenge myself to read one book every month.

In 2018 I started reading one book every month. And then in 2019, I realized I could read a little bit faster than that so I’ve increased my goal to two books every month and have a goal of reading 30 books this year. So I’ve been doing a lot and I am actually reading a book called So You Want To Talk About Race [by Ijeoma Oluo]. It just goes through things like microaggressions, like, “Can I touch your hair?” Just different things, different topics that I feel like people may not know about.

And I actually have a book club with Olivia Baker, the 800-meter runner. So we’re having some tough but important conversations within the book club on Instagram with other people that are reading it with us. So that has been really good. Just during this time period we decided to pick a book that was talking about race and justice. Someone suggested for this month—since the conversations are so difficult and it’s a lot to just type up everything on Instagram—actually having a zoom call or some kind of call where we can actually come face to face and talk about these same topics.

T&FN: Going through your Instagram posts a little bit, I saw that you read The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah. Published in 1999 but also quite topical, yes?

Orji: Yeah, The Coldest Winter Ever is fiction, actually, but it was just a great story about this girl whose dad is a drug dealer and they live a rich lifestyle, but then the dad gets caught and everything gets torn apart and torn down because the IRS takes their money. Pretty much everything gets taken and her mom ends up getting on the drugs that her dad used to sell and her dad’s in jail. And she is just trying to figure out life without her parents. That was a really good one too.

Keturah Orji’s 4th-place finish in the Rio TJ was the highest Olympic placing ever by an American woman. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

T&FN: How would you distill your primary motivation for living life as a pro triple jumper rather than doing something else right now? Don’t get me wrong, many of us would give our eye teeth to experience elite competition.

Orji: I think my primary motivation is first of all winning. Anyone that knows me, knows I’m extremely competitive. And getting to live out triple jump and long jump and being an athlete is not an opportunity many people get. Many people don’t make money off their passion. So my passion to triple jump and long jump definitely comes from being the best. This is something I’m one of the best at.

So I definitely think that’s one place it comes from, but also I feel like it’s a talent that God gave me and I have to use it, whether for promoting Him or just to glorify Him. I just feel like when someone gives you something really special, you don’t just like throw it away like, “Oh, I don’t want that.” I feel like God’s given me something and I should use it to the best of my ability. So I’m always trying to just get better and improve on my athleticism and perform better every year.

T&FN: Do you have any plan for how long you’ll be jumping?

Orji: I’m not sure. I have a fiancé, actually, and we’re probably going to get married this year and I know I want to have children, but I am not going to be having children in the middle of my athletic career. So I think 30 or 32 would be a good age. I don’t think I could go past that, but honestly you never know, because a lot of times when you’re younger, you’re like, “Oh, I’ll stop this then.” But you don’t know when you’re in the moment, ’cause it’s something you love to do. And if you’re doing really well, why stop?

T&FN: Besides eventually starting a family, do you have any feeling for what you want to do with the rest of your life after this chapter is over?

Orji: I’ve thought about that, but it’s hard because I haven’t had a lot of experience in different jobs. I feel like there’s so many jobs out there. Obviously you can choose a major, but in one major there’s so many jobs. My major was in Financial Planning and I really enjoyed that. I think I really enjoy educating people on finances, helping people experience financial freedom and just any type of financial counseling. I got some experience doing that in college and I loved it. So that is definitely an option for me.

I also love teaching and so I’ve thought about even becoming a teacher or a professor or just something where I’m helping people learn and investing in people. I love mentoring. I think those are my top two. I love math. So anything with numbers is usually something I’m involved in, but I’m not sure. I need more experience in other things to really know. I don’t think I want to coach, though. A lot of athletes do want to get into coaching.

T&FN: I should have asked you this earlier. Will you be putting more emphasis on the long jump going forward since it will give you more opportunities, including opportunities to earn money?

Orji: Yes, I think I will be since I can’t compete in the Diamond League in the triple jump. It will be harder for me, though, because my ranking is not as high in the long jump and I’m not as well known in the long jump. So sometimes with getting into meets and everything, it’s a lot more difficult. It’s not just based off of marks. So hopefully I can get myself in the door there, but that is something that my coach and I talked about and he wants to do.

T&FN: What would you say are your greatest assets as a jumper, a triple jumper but also a long jumper?

Orji: I think my speed on the runway is one of my strengths. When I compare my 100m PB to other jumpers, they might be faster, but I think on the runway I do a good job of carrying speed. So that’s definitely one of mine. Also, my contacts on the ground are very quick. I think it’s from gymnastics, I used to be a gymnast when I was younger. But I don’t spend much time on the ground at all. My foot hits the ground and comes right off. And then my ability to adjust my body or correct things in the air.

Once again, I think that came from gymnastics, but I was talking to my coach the other day and he was just saying that I’m very aware of my body. It may not have been something I taught myself, it might have just been natural, but I can make mistakes in the air and, and still get out of positions that other people wouldn’t be able to get out of. And that’s a strength. We talked about that being a strength and a weakness, because sometimes I can put myself in bad positions, but because I can get out of them, it looks like it didn’t even happen.

T&FN: So it’s almost like a crutch? “OK, I corrected And that came out alright”?

Orji: Yes, exactly. So it’s a strength and a weakness.

T&FN: Jeremy Fischer is a highly respected jumps coach. What’s it like working with him?

Orji: Well, I’m new to working with him. So I feel like I can’t say much about him yet. One is that he definitely knows how to coach his athletes because he’s had so much success with jumpers. Obviously Brittney [Reese], Will [Claye] and Chris [Benard] are all super talented and Bryan [McBride]. Super talented people, but to be able to get them to perform at a high level when you need it to happen, just shows that he’s a great coach. And then I also love how specific he is about things. When we come to practice, he knows exactly what we’re gonna be working on and what my weaknesses are and what we can do to fix those weaknesses. So I just feel like it’s very individualized while I was used to a college system where it’s kind of like, “We’re a team and we’re a group. So we’re all doing this for all of us,” rather than this is for Keturah Orji because this is what’s best for Keturah Orji.

T&FN: Are you able to train at Florida’s track in Gainesville?

Orji: I was but UF has their track closed down so now it’s just some public park track.

T&FN: Does the facility have a decent jumps runway?

Orji: Yeah. It’s kind of short so Marquis Dendy can’t get his approach on there, but it’s long enough for me. And if you put the board back far enough the sandpit is long enough too.

T&FN: So the conditions are not terrible but not optimal either. With prospects for competition this year still murky at best, do you think there is anything beneficial about the Olympic delay that will help you prepare for Tokyo?

Orji: Well, I’m just looking at this year as kind of a building block now. Even if they have meets I just don’t think people will be in the shape that they would have been because everyone had to stop doing things and was working out from home. So even if they have meets, I still just look at this as a building block for me for next year.

And I definitely see a lot of benefit from this. The first one is that, like I said earlier, I had an opportunity to transition with a new coach. And so this all extra time has helped me to adjust to workouts and get used to his training. And then another thing that was great for me is I got to see some family that I usually wouldn’t see. Usually I would be wherever I’m training, all eager to see them like once or twice a year, but because I knew everything was closed and there wasn’t any intense training going on and just kind of maintenance, I went up to New Jersey. My friend drove up to New Jersey so I drove up with him and got to see my family, which I usually wouldn’t do during this time period. So that has been great for me too.

And I think a lot of people are benefiting from just rest and spending more time with their family—because most of the time we’re just busy, busy, busy. We have this, we schedule that and then we have work. Because of this you don’t get much quality time to just sit and relax. But this time when we were forced to stay at home, it really brought, I think, a lot of families closer. I saw people working out more, exercising more together and just spending more time with other people. Quality time, not like I’m on my phone while I’m talking to you.

T&FN: Several athletes I’ve spoken with have expressed similar sentiments. Speaking of family, you mentioned you may get married this year. Are there any details you’d like to share?

Orji: So we don’t have a date yet. And also we’re probably not going to have a wedding because of everything that has happened [this year], and then also just because weddings are expensive and my fiancé and I are both pretty frugal, so we’re not interested in dropping a lot of money in one day, but we’re probably going to get married in September or October. I met him at UGA. He was also on the track team. His name is Kisean Smith, he was an 800 runner. He lives in Atlanta, which was another reason that I didn’t go all the way to California. He’s an accountant so he likes math too. He has a house in Atlanta. I don’t know what else to tell you.

T&FN: On to the third degree then. Just kidding. Thanks for doing the interview. I can assure you everyone on this side of the track—fans, us media—look forward to seeing you in a meet sooner than later. Absence does make the heart grow fonder.

Orji: Yeah, for sure. It makes me grateful.

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