Will Claye Thrives On Mental Preparation

Confirming that he didn’t take a single jump this year, Will Claye says, “Nope. I did not. I did not. In my mind, I did mental reps.” (JEFF COHEN)

PREPARE WITH PATIENCE and confidence. And stay balanced. Not Will Claye’s exact words though a fair distillation of his ongoing approach in a pandemic year during which the consistently bemedaled triple jumper opted not to compete at all.

After cranking out the two longest meets of his life in ’19—59-6¼ (18.14) & 59-3 (18.06)—Claye jumped 58-2½ (17.74) (twice!) to take the silver behind friend/former college teammate/nemesis Christian Taylor at the World Championships.

Claye says Doha “was a terrible championships for me.” More on that later, but he nevertheless added his fourth outdoor WC medal since ’11 to a collection that also includes World Indoor golds from ’12 & ’16 and 3 Olympic medals, one of them his ’12 long jump bronze. That’s a lot of metal!

Now 29 and based in San Diego, Claye declares he has every reason to believe his best championships are ahead of him. That made his decision an easy one when C19 shut down any semblance of a normal season.

“My coach and I, we had a plan,” he says of his plotting with Jeremy Fischer, his trainer since ’13 and before that during his ’09 & ’10 years at Oklahoma. “The plan was to gear up for the Olympics and then when the Olympics got postponed, it was just a thing of where, ‘OK, well, let’s take care of the body, work on the little things, not beat up the body,’ because triple jump is arguably the most taxing event in track & field when it comes to joints and just the pounding on the body, the force that we’re putting into the ground.

“So it was just smart to not compete this year and get ready to potentially have the best Olympic showing that I’ve ever had.”

From long experience, Claye and Fischer knew exactly what to work on: “A lot of my weaknesses—like core, foot and ankle. If anyone knows Will Claye, they know my feet look terrible. So I worked on my feet and ankles a lot. And I also watched a lot of film, a lot of film, getting those mental reps. That was a big thing for me.

“And then I’m just trying to keep my spirits in a positive space. That’s where the music helped a lot. I was able to really just get my feelings and thoughts out through music and I feel like that kept me in a good space spiritually, mentally.”

“The music.” Take note. While Claye’s off-track ventures encompass entrepreneurial business, fashion and visual art, music—hip-hop recording and in live performance—is not just a passion of his but a wellspring of balance in his life. The night before Halloween he showcased his hip-hop/rap stylings in an online concert he calls “my one performance of the year, on and off the track.”

Claye sees his auditory outlet as a crucial counterpoint to jumping. “Music is so universal, so universal, to the point to where I’ve been able to connect with so many people all over the world, just by them hearing something I said and then connecting to that same feeling that I had,” he says. “And it just has given me a different outlook on a lot of things, because I feel like whenever I’m doing track & field I’m doing it for me. Whenever I’m doing music, I feel like I’m doing it for the masses or other people, you know?

“So it’s just given me a different feel of just being able to not be selfish. Track & field is very much so a selfish sport. You know, it’s just you out there. And music took me out of that space of being selfish and [into] wanting to help someone maybe get through something that they’re going through that I’ve been through before. And just connecting with people all over the world—in a space that you may not even understand the lyrics I’m saying, but the feeling in what I’m saying, you could feel it.”

Feeling and intuitive understanding matter in triple jumping too, which is why Claye is not at all concerned he contested no meets in ’20—and in fact, never took a single jump.

“I still trained,” he says. “It just was different. It wasn’t getting on the track. It was other types of exercises and workouts. I live by the beach so I would go to the beach and do a lot of sand workouts. I was blessed to be able to get the grant from USATF for equipment for my house. So I did a lot of home workouts. I just had to get creative and use what I had.”

Drills? Of course, but Claye swears he never ever took a jump this spring and summer. “Nope. I did not. I did not,” he affirms. “In my mind, I did mental reps. I did a lot of jumps mentally knowing the body doesn’t know whether those were real or not. The body takes those in as real reps.

“So if we put it like that, then I did. I probably took more reps than any other triple jumper. I’m talking about as far as mentally.”

Whereas one might guess Claye’s faith in mental repetition is the end result of a decade-plus jumping at the highest elite level, he assures that’s not the case. He developed the practice as an Oklahoma soph even before he transferred to begin his storied 1-season turn as a Florida Gator.

“I’ve had to,” he says “because I’ve had injuries. Like in 2010, I had a stress fracture in my back and I could barely even walk. So mental reps was all that I really had and I got that from [’95 world indoor champion] Brian Wellman. He’s another great legendary triple jumper. When I was injured, he told me, ‘Man, continue watching film.’ And I did that, and that’s helped me tremendously since then.”

Claye watches video of his own jumps and “I’ll watch other people too,” he says. “I watch a lot of Jonathan Edwards and a lot of Kenny Harrison ’cause I feel like those are the two guys that I’m most alike. Very fast down the runway and elastic off the ground. Quick ground contacts and not the tallest guys.”

At the ’12 Olympics, Claye, few fans will forget, medaled in the LJ as well as the TJ, and the London Games remain his personal favorite majors-performance to this day, though he assures that looking back in time is not his priority.

“You know,” he says, “I still don’t really look at how big of a feat things are right now, because I’m still in it. I’m still trying to do more. I’m trying to do better and grow and elevate everything to another level so I don’t really look back at meets much, but I would have to say the Olympics in 2012 was definitely one that was special. It was my first experience of the Olympics. I was able to be there with all my family—I have a lot of family in London—and being able to leave a mark in the history books as the first American since 1904 [when Meyer Prinstein took two golds] to medal in long jump and triple jump, I think that was something great.”

Will Claye sees his auditory outlet as a crucial counterpoint to jumping. (GIANCARLO COLOMBO/PHOTO RUN)

While Claye has not long jumped at a WC/OG since ’13, he placed 2nd in USATF’s LJ in ’19 and before that reached 26-11¼ (8.21) on the same day he reached his triple jump PR.

The single-bounder remains on his agenda. “Absolutely,” he says. “That’s always going to be part of my goal: to double up and win gold in both. That’s always going to be on my vision board and part of my goals.”

Preparing to contest the two horizontals at the highest level demands care in his training, for the two disciplines in many respects, are not the same thing. “Those are two completely different events,” he confirms. “The only thing that’s the same is that you have to run down the runway, but even the way you run down the runway is different in both events. So it’s training my body to be able to handle the two events and also training my body to be able to know the difference between the two when I do it.

“So I can’t come down the runway in the long jump if my body thinks that I’m about to triple jump, so I have to be able to differentiate and compartmentalize the two events when I’m practicing to where I’ll be able to handle it in a competition.” As such, he never practices for both on the same day.

But what was that Claye said about the Doha TJ in ’19? “A terrible championships”?

“I didn’t execute the way that I should have, and I did not take care of my body the way that I should have to give me the best chance to go out there and jump as far as I was supposed to jump,” he explains.

Having sailed through the summer and pulled out the two longest jumps of his career, “[The DL Final] was where things kind of just changed,” Claye says. “I just got into a bad habit. I made a mistake, a critical mistake at Brussels and that lingered into World Championships.”

His mistake was technical and resulted in injury 3 weeks before the WC’s Q round. “I bruised my heel in Brussels just from being in a bad position,” he says, “and as any jumper will know, trying to apply forces to the ground when you have a bruised heel, it’s not easy. So I just should have taken better care of myself with being in Europe and competing and that never should have happened. And that stuck with me into the World Championships. I had to just still go out there and make the best of what I could with what I had.”

His Doha silver distance was his second-longest ever at a major, just 2cm shorter than his 58-3¼ (17.76) at Rio ’16, yet a bitter pill considering he averaged 59-0 (17.98) in his three best comps of ’19, long enough to win at Worlds and longer than gold medalist Taylor’s 3-mark average coming in.

Not that Claye spends time measuring himself against or playing psych games with his pal Taylor or anybody else. “Nope, I don’t,” he says. “I just go out and jump. No, I feel like I just go out and do what I practiced. I don’t give my energy to any other person. My energy is for myself, you know? So I mentally put myself in a place to where I’m focused on me. I need all my focus and energy to be on myself and execute exactly how I need to do it. So, yeah, I wouldn’t have any extra energy to give to anyone else to be mad or to get anyone else to amp me up because then I’m relying on another man to jump far.

“I respect all my competitors,” he says, “but I’m not really worried too much about anybody. You know, I feel like when I’m in shape and I’m healthy that I’m going to go out there and do what I have to do, and I have faith in God that I have everything that I need to go out and jump really far. So, yeah, I don’t really put myself in a league with anyone. I just go out there and do what Will Claye does, you know? That’s it.”

What Will Claye does is what he intends to keep doing in the Olympic year and beyond.