T&FN Interview — Christian Taylor

There will be no sand pits in Christian Taylor’s immediate future as he recuperates from Achilles surgery. (JEFF COHEN)

’TWAS A NIGHTMARISH SIGHT in an Olympic Dream year: 2-time gold medalist triple jumper Christian Taylor at Ostrava in May launching into an attempt that looked disastrously wrong, crazily askew, from the instant his right foot left the board.

Next the second-longest-leaping TJer of all-time, the 4-time world champion, standing up cautiously, and no doubt painfully, in the pit — stunned, disbelieving.

Taylor — as confirmed through social media by his fiancée, Austrian hurdler Beate Schrott — had ruptured his Achilles and Tokyo glory was jolted beyond his reach. Though hobbled severely, Taylor hustled from Ostrava, where he won his first international gold at the ‘07 World Youth Champs, to a hospital in Germany for a surgical repair.

“I strive to lead, inspire, motivate, encourage, challenge, and entertain,” he declared on Instagram 5 days later. “You all have shown me that my career has been more than merely jumping in a sandbox and for that I dry my eyes and push forward. My Olympic dream has been lost but my purpose remains. Thank YOU for that. #6thround #JobHeart.”

Taylor, now 31, vows unwaveringly to get back in the game. He can take heart at the example of his friend and fiercest rival, Will Claye, who —unbeknownst to the wider track world until just before Claye won at the Olympic Trials — had sustained the same injury 17 months earlier and fought his way back. (Continued below)

Christian Taylor’s smile and upbeat attitude are all but unrivaled in the sport. Even with his world rocked, he graciously agreed to share thoughts and observations with T&FN long distance from his home in Vienna a couple days after the Trials TJ went off in Eugene. He accepted due condolences and got right down to it.

T&FN: One has to ask, how are you keeping yourself sane these days?

Taylor: Currently watching the British Trials, so, you know, I’m an athletics fan at heart. Yeah, I’m definitely trying to stay in the loop with all the activities globally, but outside of that, just rehabbing like crazy and also taking some time to just enjoy summer for once.

T&FN: What does rehab consist of at this stage?

Taylor: It’s really at the early stages the first 6 weeks. So the most important thing that I’ve been advised to do is rest, you know, not stressing the tendon too much and, and very, very light massages. But I mean, the biggest thing is they were saying, “Let it heal, let the body do its thing.” I’m going back next week to the surgeon and the doctors to do a progress check. And then after that, hopefully I’ll be out of the walking boot, get off the crutches and be able to start walking again fully, which would be very, very nice.

T&FN: I’m sure the boot gets old quick. How soon after the injury did you have your Achilles repaired?

Taylor: The next day I had it. Not even 24 hours after. I went to Germany just across the border, and then my fiancée is Austrian, so I was in the clinic for a week. And then after that the doctor cleared me to leave the hospital.

You know, obviously I got aggravated with the new circumstances because I’m a triple jumper, right? But it’s very different to hop on one leg, to always be on one leg — and so I’m just almost coming to acceptance with what’s going on and getting the proper heads-up on what I need to be doing over the next 6 weeks. Then my fiancée came and got me, we drove back to Vienna and I’ve been here ever since.

T&FN: A week in the hospital sounds like a long time. These days they send us not-triple-jumpers home as fast as they can. Or is that more of a European thing?

Taylor: With COVID, there were two things. I didn’t have a place in Germany, so normal protocol would be you have the surgery, maybe one or two days, and then you go back home. But my home is Vienna, which is a 7-hour drive. So right after the operation they didn’t advise that — that I sit in a car for 8 hours because of the pooling of the blood. They advise after one week, then they can monitor the stitches, make sure there’s no infection and things like this.

This was my first surgery so I had no idea what to do. And, to be really honest, I was alone, right? My agent wasn’t there, my coach wasn’t. So they were like, “You know what? It’s boring. Stay here and we’ll look after you.” It was also very helpful because again, with cooking, with everything, to be hopping around the kitchen, to the fridge, to do really the basic things was extremely challenging. So just having that support was crucial.

But then after one week, my fiancée was able to compete and then to come and pick me up.

T&FN: Duh. Of course she’s competing now. It’s track season!

Taylor: Correct. So she’s actually [at the time of this talk] at the Balkans Championships, she’s competing on Sunday. (Continued below)

T&FN: Did you watch the coverage of the Trials TJ?

Taylor: This was extremely difficult from qualification to the final. It was very difficult to watch because, you know — I know it sounds maybe very silly, but — until that point in my heart, I can really say in my heart more than my head, the door wasn’t officially closed until then. But then to see the three big “Q”s and to see the Olympic rings around the names, you know, that’s when it was like the door’s shut and Tokyo is officially over for you.

Now it’s mentally preparing for Eugene, of course, for World Championships [next summer]. This is a home championship, but then you know on top of that, it’s now I have to set my eyes towards Paris [2024].

But this was very difficult because, again, just with the momentum carrying off of Doha and the championships leading up to this point, I just thought these were going to be the Games. You know, I can’t say my Games because it’s never a given, but the Games where triple jump could have been a big, big battle. With Zango now jumping 17.80 17.60-plus, 18m indoors [59-3½/18.07 WIR in January].

Pichardo is always a threat, Will coming back. I wasn’t aware of his shape but, you know, him coming back and showing that he’s always going to be continuing, I thought maybe we could be a highlight event to the Games. Now as an athletics fan, I’m just sad that I’m not going to be able to take part.

T&FN: Right now it’s rehab rehab rehab, but what else are you doing? You head The Athletics Association and you are partnered with heaventotheyeah, a company that produces faith-based retail products and donates the proceeds to improving the lives of children globally. Anything to report on those fronts?

Taylor: Yeah. The Athletics Association, this is something that since the launch has really been a pride and joy. This has been everything that I really just wanted to see take shape and take form. We’re continuing to find partners, continuing to find donors and sponsors too, because of course it is really the push and the fight of getting the athletes’ voice to the table and being a part of the decision-making process, but also it hasn’t been easy to highlight during COVID and everyone’s been affected.

The thing is the reality of the livelihoods of track & field athletes. The majority of athletes are paying to be in the sport and we want to find partners that understand the work that’s going into athletics. It’s more than just the athletes on the podium, but the dreams that people are chasing. And we want to be able to find funds that can help support these dreams and maybe give these athletes one more year, one more month, one more opportunity that can help them get to that grand stage, which may be a national championships, for some a World Championships and for the really small pool, the Olympic Games.

We’re also just trying to push the narrative of helping athletes continue chasing those dreams. So there have been several organizations like athletebiz that have really stepped up and said, “We are going to try to help with career transitioning for those conversations that are very difficult at this time.” Also The Athlete Advantage for global reach, because we know with Olympic cycles it’s a hard business. Some people are going to hang up the spikes and say, “What’s next?” and we’re trying to have resources that are available for them to make that transition a little bit smoother.

Of course, heaventotheyeah has been an awesome partner that’s been able to help use my platform for something that’s near and dear to my heart: sharing love and hope and peace in a difficult time.

Then the greatest thing that’s closest to my heart would be actually trying to get married. Last year we were hoping to get married, but as my fiancée is Austrian, she was not able to get to the U.S. due to their borders being closed. So we’re hoping that with the vaccines now, we believe with normalcy around the corner, that the borders will open and she can come to the States and we can get married. So that’s something that we’re still keeping our fingers crossed for.

T&FN: Getting married is a happy priority. You’ll get married in the States. Have you considered a wedding in Austria?

Taylor: Yes, that’s the essence. That’s like Plan B — because there’s so many friends and family in the States, but, you know, if it’s getting to the end of summer — ’cause we wanted to get married after the Games. So we’re saying if it’s starting to get into the end of summer and things aren’t opening up, then we’re going to just definitely do it in Austria. But we were planning out for over two years to have it in the States. We have the venue, we have everything already, caterers, all that fun stuff, planned for in the States.

No one was planning for COVID to hit as it did and to stay as long as it did, but if it comes to it, then you say, “At the end of the day, the wedding is a glorified party, we’ll get married, we’ll do what we need to do, and then figure out when it’s safe and we can do the big party later.”

Taylor won his fourth WC gold in Doha; he’s planning on No. 5 in Eugene next year. (MARK SHEARMAN)

T&FN: I get it. Uncertainty is still with us. Switching topics, I remember the last time you did a T&FN Interview, in the spring of 2014, you had just made a major technique change. You switched from jumping left-left-right where the right leg was your “weak” leg to right-right-left so your last phase comes off the leg you long jump with. After this injury, will you go back to your old technique?

Taylor: Believe it or not, that was the surgeon’s first question. Once I woke up, of course he asked, “Do you know who I am?” and all these things to make sure I was in the mental sane space, back to my awareness. But then he said, “Have you ever considered jumping off your left leg?”

And I said, ”Look, sir, I know I’m just another client or patient, but here’s somebody who spent 10 years jumping off the left and just recently moved to the right. There’s no way I could go back.”

He wasn’t aware of the knee issues I had previously, but that was his initial recommendation. But what I’m believing now is that this is going to be a blessing in disguise and I can address something that was bothering me for a few months leading into this. Now I can take the time to maybe strengthen it and make it stronger than it ever was before. I can say glute-wise, doing so many hops as I’m doing now, I’ve never had stronger glutes in my life.

My hip flexors are extremely strong doing everything with one leg. But I think the ankle strengthening, ankle stability, knee stressing, all the little details that I’m going to have to pay attention to day in, day out with the rehab process, are going to make me stronger than ever.

As I spoke to Will about, it’s just going to be about that point — like, when I switched legs — that you get to the point where you say, ”I’m all in,” it’s no longer hindering, it’s no longer that you’re mentally going over that hurdle. It’s just, “I’m back, I’m ready. I’m not going to be hurt again” and just jump freely and compete again. So that’s the point I’m very excited for.

But it’s just also documenting, taking step-by-step the first time I’m able to walk again, the first time I’m able to swim again, the first time I’m able to ride a bike. Those little hurdles are incremental, but they’re also crucial to remember and reflect on, but then also look forward to because those are going to be the steps that get me back to, to the 18-meter jumper that I believe I still am.

T&FN: I’m blown away at how quickly Will has returned to world class form. That’s good news for you, right?

Taylor: Yeah. And then also outside of our sport. If you look at [NBA star] Kevin Durant, he ruptured his Achilles also [in the 2019 NBA Finals] and has come back and is breaking records and stuff. So not even in athletics, I try to look at athletes that are high plyometric, very explosive, have to stop on a dime. These are very similar motions. These guys are dunking from the free throw line, right? So very similar motions to what we’re doing. To be inspired by somebody like Kevin Durant, there is hope. It’s not over.

T&FN: Great point. Kevin Durant certainly is not done. You mentioned something bothering you for months before the Achilles rupture. Was it the tendon or something other body part?

Taylor: If you saw some of the meetings, like when I was in Eugene for the USA Track & Field series meet a few months ago, I had my ankle taped up, but it was really because I was having Achilles issues. And you never know, right? As for me, I’m so skinny so it’s a fine line with what [an injury] could be, and I just thought we needed to incorporate different strength exercises. Even in the sixth round I was not able to respond.

I was passed and the commentator was like, “Well, this is Christian’s notorious round, all eyes on the triple jump.” And I was so excited and couldn’t even complete the last round because I started cramping in my calf and the tendon was very tight, and I just thought, “This is very weird. I don’t understand what’s going on.”

We took a lot of time. I was doing a lot of grass stuff, a lot of pool stuff, a lot of bike stuff because we thought maybe the track was beating me up. We tried to incorporate different weight training stuff. For about two months something was just not right. Every week there was just one jump or one sprint that was just off.

And to be really honest, in an Olympic year I can say now from experience, you know, it’s that fine line, right? You want to push it like crazy because you want to do everything to say you’re the best in the world, but you also have to be very smart and stick to a plan because when you try too many things, then it gets the better of you.

I don’t think we over-trained or overdid anything. We were very, very cautious. As I said, we were doing a lot of things outside of the track. But the reality is with all our training that we did from 2019 to 2020 in preparation for the 2020 Games, then this being postponed, there’s just, unfortunately the other side of what some people said. You know, “It was a blessing to have the extra time to heal” or the extra time to work on some fine things and exercises.

For me, it was just unfortunately one year too late. That’s what I had to accept.

T&FN: Sure. I mean, that’s it: every athlete has ups and downs physically and for you it would have been a completely different deal if Tokyo was a year earlier as planned.

Taylor: Exactly. Again as a fan, I looked at Usain, right? You see Usain in Rio and you think, “Wow, he’s going for it again” [at the 2017 Worlds]. And then to see him get hurt, you can always question, should he have stopped one year before? But then you just never know, right? As an athlete, it’s that fine line, do I push here or do I stop? Do I do one more rep or do I leave it? And so watching somebody like the great Usain, I’m comforted.

You know what? He gave it his all. And every night I put my head on the pillow I say, “You know what, I have no regrets” because at all times my coach and I, we gave it our all. We did the best we could. And unfortunately with me we were just one year off. That’s the difference.

T&FN: Agreed. Will Claye mentioned to me when I interviewed him late last year that he had not taken a single triple jump in 2020. Now we know why, and it’s understandable he didn’t want to start a negative conversation around himself so kept his injury under wraps. But he said he was visualizing jumping to beat the band and that this had long been important in his preparation. How about for you? Are you triple jumping in your head at the moment?

Taylor: No, no, no. So yes, to answer your question, visualization is a very strong thing, a very powerful tool in my toolkit. Meditation is very big so I really believe in seeing it before you achieve it. But at this point, if I’m being very honest, the only thing I’m visualizing every single day is walking. I like to believe you can only focus and worry about the things that you can control.

For me, I’m not at the place that I’m going to be envisioning jumping. I’m not going to be envisioning competing because it’s not realistic. And I like to keep my expectations very real. So for me, it’s, as I said, I see my surgeon next week. We’re going to be starting to prepare, we’re going to have this conversation. If all is well, it’s going to be, “OK, how soon can we start walking again and left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot.” Then it gets to that point of, “How soon can we be in the pool? When can we get onto the bike?”

For me when I’m setting goals, I’m very realistic and it’s step by step. But, you know, I believe in what I’m capable of. I know that I’ve been able to overcome, and really God has really been so good in fast-forwarding my success, you know, with switching a leg and one year later being back at the 18-meter mark.

So I know that I have what it takes. But even with that, I couldn’t switch legs [in 2014] and say, “I’m jumping 18 meters” because I didn’t even do that with my left leg. I’d done 17.96 [58-11¼ to win his first world title at Daegu in ’11], right? So it was first, “Let me make sure I can get to the pit.” When I said that people laughed, they said, “You’re the world champion, Olympic champion.”

I said, ”Yeah, but this is a new journey for me. So first I have to get to the pit. Then from that I need to get to 16 meters, then to 17,” because work is step by step. But with that, you enjoy the small victories. And those for me — one of my old roommates used to say, “Small steps lead to big leaps,” and that’s the reality.

T&FN: Do you feel, having been his friend and competitor for so long, that you and Will approach the sport differently?

Taylor: Sure. I think we’re just two very different people. I mean, he’s an artist. I think the way we see life is just very, very different. Sometimes I’m shocked with how much he has on his plate — with music, with clothing, with sport. I’m really amazed because, you know, being a professional athlete, it’s a lot in itself and in being an elite athlete. But I really believe there’s some people that shoot for the stars, shoot for the moon, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But I just found when it comes to sustainability if you shoot for the stars and you fall short, it’s a long fall, you know?

I found that if I just shoot for the next step, I can look at the next flight. I can say I’ve got one flight to go, but I want to just focus on every step that gets me to the next flight, instead of thinking, “Well, how do I get to the top of the building?” I think long-term it’s nice to look at the top, but for me I keep the top of the building in the back of my head, but I like to say every single day, “What is my goal? What am I trying to achieve?” And this is how I’ve always trained. This is how I work in business. This is how I’ve just always thought of everything, with every jump.

When I go into a competition, I believe my coach and I have prepared to be the best, but every jump, I think, “I just need to win this round, I need to win this round.” I don’t think it needs to be the best of the day. No, it doesn’t. You jump, well, I want to respond, and this is how I’ve always pushed. (Continued below)

T&FN: Fascinating, and not a point of view those of us who have never competed in a field event would automatically intuit. As painful as it will be not to take part, is there anything about the Tokyo Games you especially look forward to watching, albeit from afar?

Taylor: Absolutely. As you said, “painful” is the key word. It is going to be painful to watch because Tokyo is my favorite city in the world. I was so excited to be back there. So excited, I mean, for jumping history to think of what Carl Lewis and Mike Powell did there. This for me was, “Well, now I can be a part of jumping history in Tokyo.” So trust me, I’d already envisioned being part of history before I was even there. That is mentally tough. That’s a tough pill to swallow but even today World Athletics posted that Zango has a possibility of making history for his country, to be the first-ever gold medalist for his country.

For me, it gives me chills because I really believe that the Olympics are more than just performance focus, you know? It is a movement of unity. It’s a movement of empowerment. Especially with thinking next generation, it’s that opportunity that a kid now, especially in [Zango’s] country can look at what he’s doing and think, “Well, I can do it also,” and I think that’s the power of the Games.

It’s unifying the world through sport, but also empowering and encouraging and motivating people from all walks, from all sports, from all nations to say, “You know what? I can work towards that. I can dream bigger. I can do something big because I saw Phelps do it. I could do something because I saw Usain do it, I can do something because I saw Allyson.”

I mean, let’s not belittle or overshadow what Allyson has come back from as a mother, and from all the challenges. Now she’s a brand, literally, having her own shoe line. So a pioneer woman in her own right. I’m so inspired. I was always a super fan of hers in that, but working in The Athletics Association with her was such a blessing.

But, you know, to see what she’s doing, to see someone like Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce come back, these mothers making these statements that because you’re a mother does not determine that it’s over. Use that to empower others. And I think that is really something that has caught on globally. I think that’s the power of the Games.

T&FN: Well put. I should let you go but since you are talking about the Olympics and the ideals of the Games, putting on your Athletics Association hat, do you trust that the IOC will wisely handle any possible athlete social statements or protests?

Taylor: I definitely know what you’re getting to. This is not a political answer. I do not believe the IOC will change their bylaws, their ruling. What I’m encouraged from as an American athlete, as a proud American athlete, is that the USOPC openly stated that they will not additionally punish the athletes or penalize the athletes.

[USOPC CEO] Sarah Hirshland, phenomenal woman, took the time through the pandemic to have hosted numerous town hall meetings with athletes through all sports. I can say I attended several town hall meetings with just track & field. She wanted to speak to Gwen [Berry]. She wanted to hear how the athletes really felt about this and to correlate what this rule really said to them.

For me, I really applaud her. I always want to give her credit for actually taking the time, not sending a representative, not just sending someone to say something on her behalf. She attended these meetings, spoke with us and, and said, “You know what? I understand now, I was not aware of how deeply rooted this was. I was not aware of how, how much this ruling affected you guys, and we will stand with you guys.”

And so the IOC is — I don’t want to say “a beast” because that could come out wrong — but the IOC is a very strong entity in itself that is going to do as they want. I don’t see things changing, but as a proud American athlete, I am very fortunate to run and compete under a federation that says, “We understand where you guys come from and we support you.”