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Christian Taylor shifts focus from triple jump to the track

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Christian Taylor, a two-time Olympic triple jump champion, plans to race the 400m throughout this season, making him one of the busiest track and field athletes in the so-called fallow year.

This is the only summer in the four-year cycle without an Olympics or a world outdoor championships.

“It kind of opened up the opportunity to try something different and just kind of recharge,” Taylor said Thursday, noting Olympic decathlon champion Ashton Eaton‘s 400m hurdles foray in 2014, “looking forward to the next three years being very serious and championship-focused.”

After winning a third straight global title at 2017 Worlds, Taylor told his coach, Rana Reider, he had something else in mind in 2018. Reider has also coached sprinters, including world 200m champion Dafne Schippers.

“[Reider] was like, the last three years have been pretty solid, what would you like to do?” Taylor said. “I said, I really think I can run 44 seconds. He was like, all right, let’s do it.”

Taylor could reach his goal of breaking 45 seconds at a Diamond League meet in Shanghai on Saturday (live on NBC Sports Gold at 6:10 a.m. ET and NBCSN at 7).

“It’s almost going to be a check off my bucket list if I’m able to break the 45-second barrier,” said Taylor, whose focus the previous several years was on a different number — 18.29 meters, Jonathan Edwards‘ triple jump world record (Taylor’s personal best is 18.21, a cigarette’s length shy of Edwards).

Taylor opened his outdoor campaign clocking 45.48 and 45.44 in March and April at meets at the University of Florida, his alma mater.

His personal best is 45.17 from 2014, the last fallow year and one in which Taylor’s schedule was to focus on the 400m through May and then return to the triple jump.

This season, Taylor plans to race the 400m at least five times, including at the USATF Outdoor Championships in June and hopefully more if he receives invites to summer European meets.

A 44.99-second 400m would not put Taylor in the top 100 Americans all-time in the event, but it would have placed fourth in the 2016 Olympic Trials final. Five other Americans have already broken 45 this year, and 12 broke 45 last year.

He’ll continue to contest the triple jump every time it’s offered in the Diamond League.

Taylor’s focus on sprinting risks defeats in the triple jump, where competition this year may be the greatest of Taylor’s career.

Taylor’s longtime American rival — two-time Olympic silver medalist Will Claye — won the world indoor title in Taylor’s absence in March.

Taylor’s most recent international rivals — Cuban-born Pedro Pablo Pichardo and Frenchman Teddy Tamgho — could both compete regularly this season for the first time since 2013.

Pichardo, back after switching representation to Portugal, beat Taylor at last week’s Diamond League opener in Doha with the farthest triple jump ever this early in a season (17.95 meters).

It marked just the third Diamond League loss for Taylor since the start of 2015. He knows his triple jumping will be affected by the increased sprint training, and he’s content with it.

“I’m going to be in a better place, happier, fresher,” Taylor said. “It’s just a different challenge, you know? That was the whole thing about this year, just trying to recharge physically and mentally. I’m trying to stretch my career out as long as possible.”

Ideally, Taylor breaks Edwards’ world record in 2019 or 2020, wins a third straight Olympic gold in Tokyo (though he values the world record more) and then turns to the 400m full-time at age 30.

“I would be able to lay down knowing I did everything I could in the triple jump,” Taylor said.

How serious is he taking the 400m?

“The first person I hit up was Wayde,” Taylor said of Olympic champion and world-record holder Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa. “What can I do to break this [45-second] barrier? I’m not trying to run 43.0. Just give me a breakdown of the race or things to focus on.”

Americans LaShawn Merritt and Vernon Norwood have been helpful in recent years as well. 

If Taylor breaks 45 seconds this year, he becomes a more intriguing candidate for a 4x400m relay at the 2019 Worlds or 2020 Olympics. In 2014, Taylor ran the 4x400m for the U.S. at the IAAF World Relays.

At the 2019 Worlds, the men’s 4x400m and the triple jump final are in the same session. But the debut of the mixed-gender 4x400m is a week later.

The mixed 4x400m is also on the Olympic program for the first time in Tokyo.

Taylor isn’t thinking that far ahead yet. He hopes more 400m races are in his near future. What he does on Saturday could play a big part in that.

“Every time I run, it opens or closes doors for other opportunities to run again,” he said.

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MORE: Five events to watch at Shanghai Diamond League

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Jordan Thompson, U.S. volleyball’s new weapon, took unique route to NCAA history

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It was about this time last year that Jordan Thompson first appeared on the radar of U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly. Since, Thompson emerged as the youngest starter, and arguably a star, for the national team.

She goes into what could be her final weekend of college volleyball as one of the most dominant athletes in any sport. And one of the most unique stories in NCAA history.

Thompson plays not for a Big Ten or Pac-12 powerhouse, but for Cincinnati, a school that, before she arrived, never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The unranked Bearcats upset second-ranked Pittsburgh in the second round last Saturday. They play Penn State, winner of six of the last 12 NCAA titles, in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

In 33 games this season, Thompson has registered a Division I-leading 768 kills, which is 143 more than the next most prolific attacker. That margin of 143 is the same number that separates No. 2 from No. 31.

Last season, she had 827 kills, which was 240 more than anybody else and a single-season record (by 112 kills) since NCAA match formats shifted from 30-point to 25-point sets in 2008.

She is a contender, if not a favorite, to be AVCA National Player of the Year. All of the previous winners dating to 1985 came from schools that reached at least one Final Four.

On Oct. 4, a UCF player’s face caught the wrong end of a Thompson attack. Cincinnati teammates watching from the bench dropped to the floor in astonishment.

Thompson tallied 50 kills in one match alone on Nov. 3, becoming the first D-I player to do so in 20 years.

That happened on Senior Day. Before that match, Thompson received a plaqued No. 23 jersey and flowers.

She posed for a photo standing with her husband, former Cincinnati offensive lineman Blake Yager, her mother, Mary, whose bribes helped Thompson develop into an attacker, and her father, 1990s Harlem Globetrotter Tyrone Doleman (and brother of Pro Football Hall of Famer Chris Doleman).

Mary has been most instrumental, raising Thompson as a single mom in Minnesota. Thompson, who is 6 feet, 4 inches now, was always tall for her age.

She played youth basketball against older girls and grew frustrated by the physical contact. Kneepads weren’t comfort enough. She decided to give volleyball a try in middle school.

“She was very timid,” Mary said of her daughter, who has since gotten 10 tattoos, including one of a hummingbird. “She would tell me she didn’t want to hurt anyone on the other side of the net. I told her I would give her a dollar for every time she would whack it. And I would give her $10 if she would actually hit someone on the other end of the court.”

It took a while, but Thompson was motivated by her love of horses. The payouts from her mom went toward a saddle and a bridal. A box with horse equipment remains in the family garage back home.

“She was trying to build up her supplies to be able to one day say to me, look, I’ve got a saddle, I’ve got all of my tack, I’ve got stuff to clean the hooves, can we get a horse now?” Mary said. 

After just two years of club volleyball, Thompson received her first Division-I scholarship offer. It came from Syracuse. Thompson was a high school sophomore.

“In the back of my head, I’m thinking, I’m never going to get another offer, so I better take this one,” she said.

Thompson was intent on Syracuse for a year before a coaching change led her to decommit. She wasn’t sure if many schools knew she had reopened her recruiting. A Minnesota club teammate had committed to Cincinnati and suggested Thompson take a visit.

The Bearcats went 3-29 the season before she committed.

“I said, Jordan, you can play D-I at Texas. You can go to Nebraska,” Mary said. “She was like, no, no, I want to play all four years. I actually want to get playing time, mom. She really struggled believing how good she could be.”

The biggest obstacle came junior year. In a preseason training session, Thompson collided with that Minnesota club teammate, Jade Tingelhoff, and tore the UCL in her dominant, right arm. She was in an armpit-to-wrist brace for two months post-Tommy John surgery, including three weeks with her arm locked in place.

She couldn’t brush her hair, had a hard time brushing her teeth and found it difficult showering and getting dressed.

She still went to every Bearcats game and traveled with the team. Cincinnati went from 22-10 her sophomore season to 13-19 that year without her on the court.

“It ended up being OK,” Tingelhoff said. “She came back that next season — I’m not kidding — 10 times as better than she was even the previous year.”

As a redshirt junior, Thompson and her 827 kills helped Cincinnati to a 26-8 record and its first NCAA Tournament win in seven years. She also caught the eye of Kiraly by the end of that 2018 season.

“She was one of the elite players in all of college volleyball,” he said. “Probably the only one who came from a conference other than the ones known for producing the most NCAA champions, like the Big Ten and the Pac-12.”

By last spring break, Thompson had become a favorite of U.S coaches at a camp to help select teams for summer international tournaments.

She had a one-on-one conversation with Kiraly, the only person to own Olympic indoor and beach gold medals. The legend told her she had potential to play at the Pan American Games. Later, he upped the praise to say she was ready for the top-level Nations League, a precursor to Olympic qualifying.

Thompson made her national team debut in May. By August, she came off the bench to help spur a comeback in a crucial Olympic qualifying match. The next day, she was in the starting lineup for the U.S.’ final Olympic qualifier, where the Americans clinched a Tokyo 2020 berth.

“I think a lot people don’t know she is still in college,” two-time U.S. Olympic outside hitter Jordan Larson said then. “She still has one more year left.”

Agents reached out, but Thompson had no intention of giving up her final year of NCAA eligibility. She wanted to make history at Cincinnati. That was secured with the Sweet 16 berth.

With the new year, she will trade the Cincinnati red and black for Team USA colors. She will keep in mind what the U.S. coaching staff told the team during Olympic qualifying and what she called a dream summer.

“My big goal in life was I just wanted to be in the USA gym,” said Thompson, who is working on her master’s in criminal justice. “To hear that we’re all working towards this goal of trying to make this roster, and we are being looked as potential players to make that roster, my jaw dropped. To know that it’s even a remote possibility is mind-blowing.”

VIDEO: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

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Tahiti chosen for Olympic surfing competition at 2024 Paris Games

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Paris 2024 Olympic organizers want the surfing competition to be held in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia that is about 9,800 miles from Paris.

It would break the record for the farthest Olympic medal competition to be held outside the host. In 1956, equestrian events were moved out of Melbourne due to quarantine laws and held five months earlier in Stockholm, some 9,700 miles away.

The Paris 2024 executive board approved the site Thursday — specifically, the village of Teahupo’o — and will propose it to the IOC. It beat out other applicants Biarritz, Lacanau, Les Landes and La Torche, all part of mainland France.

“If, ever, we have two alternatives, and where one alternative gives the athletes of a particular sport more closeness to the heart of the Games and allows them to enjoy the magic and the spirit of the Games better, then in the interest of the athletes, we prefer this solution,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in June when asked about Tahiti’s interest in hosting surfing.

Surfing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games but is not on the permanent Olympic program. Surfing was among sports added to the Paris 2024 program in June and could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

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