WITH TITLES TO DEFEND at both the Olympic Trials and Games next summer, long jumper Jeff Henderson has kept his eyes on those prizes in the pandemic year. No risky, complicated ventures out to scrounge up meets in the nearly meet-less summer, no competitions at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center, his training base with coach Al Joyner for the past 8 years.
“My mom has Alzheimer’s,” says Henderson, who also spoke of his mother Debra’s condition after his ’16 Trials victory. “But she’s still alive. So I’m doing this all for her.” Henderson will be 32 for the delayed Tokyo season and 36 when Paris ’24 goes off, but he intends to jump in both those Games.
“Nothing really has changed for us,” says Henderson, who last fall in Doha leaped to silver at the World Championships, his first appearance on a majors podium since taking his title in Rio. “It just gives us more time to get ready for our training for next year, trying to get back more healthy, get to where we want to be at for the end of next year, the Olympic year. It’s kind of neat, it will give me more time to get my psychological mind back together and mental capacity back together, get it back strong and get my body back healthy.”
The Henderson/Joyner approach through a stretch winning three USATF titles since ’14 has never been crowded with comps that count for little. That being so, Henderson—who jumped up from a college career at Hinds CC, the NAIA’s Florida Memorial and NCAA II’s Stinson to place 2nd in the ’13 USATF for his first turn on the elite stage—is grateful for the regrouping opportunity this year gave him.
But what’s that Henderson says about getting back healthy? “So no one knew this,” he explains, “but at the World Championships and Nationals [last year] I had a groin injury. I could barely even walk after USAs. So I took 2 months off—no training at all, no running at all—and just really just focused on getting back healthy. I really could not lift my leg up a little bit and not feel any pain. So we eventually got back a little bit, and to running eventually. And 2 weeks later I was in Doha so I kinda had to wing it. The way it went, I still did pretty well.
“I came to Worlds and I was still kind in pain when I was jumping, but I tried to overcome that and obviously I did well enough to do that.” In Doha Henderson also claimed U.S. list leadership for ’19.
In the 60 days between his USATF final and the Worlds prelims Henderson avoided jumping altogether: “We just went off of running mechanics, and we’d do that on the grass and on the track, but we never did any full-approach jumps. Not one time. And my first jumps were at World Championships for the prelims.”
Henderson sprung out to 26-7¾ (8.12), second-longest in the Doha Q round, and two nights later in the final bounded into 2nd behind surprise gold medalist Tajay Gayle with 27-2 (8.28) in the first round, and when eventual bronze medalist Juan Miguel Echevarría passed him in round 3, he answered with a 27-6½ (8.39) leap that held up for 2nd.
“We focus on just being comfortable and being confident,” Henderson says, recalling his thoughts on the Khalifa Stadium runway. “So that’s mostly what I wanted to focus on. And as I got comfortable with myself and more confident in myself I knew that I could get back to where I was. Even though I was injured, I knew I could jump well enough to at least show the company, mainly my competitors, that I could still compete at the highest level.”
Admitting his groin was sore that night, Henderson says, “But of course you have to put mind over matter, and that’s kind of what I did.”
Giving back to his family fuels Henderson’s fire. “Making sure that I’m set after track & field, that’s my drive,” he says. “I’m in the sport ‘cause of my mom and my dad. So I just make sure I keep my mom and dad happy, and keep them healthy. That kind of keeps me going. And now I’m trying to buy a house. So it’s just trying to make sure I’m set for my life. I’m doing this sport because of my mom.”
Alzheimer’s—there’s no beating around the bush about it—is a cruel disease. Debra’s battle inspires her son’s in the long jump. “She’s actually doing well,” he says. “She’s still bedridden. But she’s a fighter. She’s been with this for 14½ years. So I’m praying for her. Actually, I just saw her a couple months ago. She’s doing well. And honestly, it was a much harder time when I was younger and going through that.”
Henderson’s dad Laverne “is good,” too, says the son who brought his Rio gold straight to his parents in Little Rock, Arkansas, as soon as he flew back Stateside. “He’s about to retire and so he can just focus on just taking care of our mom and his wife and just enjoy his life. On his part, it’s bad because his wife is so sick, but at the same time he’s doing his job as a husband. So I’m blessed to have him to make sure that my mom is safe and alive. ‘Cause she’s not in a nursing home, she’s at home.”
Henderson has fit in one visit to see his parents this year—a trip requiring meticulous caution and planning because COVID-19 is an especially perilous risk for a woman in Debra’s condition.
He has also launched a clothing line featuring a logo and graphic flourishes of his own design. His brand: TheMoment.
“I call it that,” explains Henderson, “because everyone can seize a moment. It can be at work, at a job, when you’re growing up, and that’s why I call it MomentWear. It’s your moment. I like drawing, I like clothes, I like architecture.” For a time Henderson combined architecture classes with jumping but found the pairing unworkable. “So that led me to drawing and designing my brand, and that’s kind of what I’ve been doing,” he says.
That and preparing for the Games year. After collaborating as long as he has with Joyner—the ’84 Olympic triple jump gold medalist—Henderson brings no doubts to the process. He says of Joyner, “There’s a method to his madness all the time. That’s what I always say. But as a coach he just makes it simple to understand.
“Of course, a coach should be a mentor, should be a person that you can talk to about anything. That kind of helps in competing too ’cause you can say one word and you both understand what you’re talking about without even going into depth.”
With Omar Craddock and Jasmine Todd as his partners in pain, Henderson’s fitness is forged through a rigorous program set by Joyner. “We’ve kind of kept a mental capacity to know that if I can do all these workouts this hard, I know that I can do anything,” he says.
With that as his conviction, Henderson is unfazed by a year now passed sans competition of any kind and is ready to get back to the wars in ’21. He says, “It definitely feels weird not competing, but definitely it has its perks. Meets are fine, but if you can do it in practice, you can do it at any meet.”