By Caroline Kurdej
Special to NBCSports.com
Hammers. High dips and high bars. A handmade pole vault pit — and long jump runway extension. Virtual garage sales. Fauxlympics.
Together, they represent challenges and solutions for Olympic hopefuls dealing with the first postponed Games in modern history. Athletes have grown increasingly creative amid the restlessness of the pandemic in striving to qualify for Tokyo.
Take Sandi Morris, Olympic pole vault silver medalist and American indoor record holder. The last virtual garage sale she hosted was in 2016, to help raise money for her sister’s flight to Rio.
This time, she sold gear that she no longer uses to earn extra income.
It’s rewarding for Morris to send items to fans and make an extra bit of cash. Especially when many Olympic athletes aren’t able to compete and earn prize or appearance money. COVID-19 has impacted everyone.
Morris shared she’s making about one-third of what she normally would, “which is enough to get by.”
Her sale a few weeks ago was inspired by Olympic long jump champion Tianna Bartoletta, who went as far as parting with a Diamond League trophy.
“It was good for the soul to clean out all of my stuff and know people who are actually going to use it now have it,” Morris said with a laugh.
The toughest part was pricing the worn apparel – a fine balance between looking at it as memorabilia and repurposing athletic clothes for the next Sandi Morris.
She shipped 66 items ranging from running shoes, used spikes, bib numbers, Team USA gear and uniforms, “tons of stuff I’ll probably never wear again,” for a total of $5,500, spending about $500 on shipping. She packed them all up by hand.
There also came an unusual request for a signed pole (competition poles are taller than 10 feet). “I’m currently working that one out and plan to do it,” Morris recently texted with a laughing face emoji.
The Olympic gear was the most difficult for Morris to part with, namely since Rio has, so far, been her only Olympics. If she does qualify for Tokyo, she hopes to sell more gear to fellow athletes.
In an Instagram video, Morris’ golden blonde hair bounces back and forth, glimmering in the summer’s pounding sun. She stops to catch her breath as sweat droplets drip down her face. “If you build it, they will come,” a constant narrator whispers.
She bounds through the hillsides of Des Moines, Iowa. The backdrop contrasts her former Arkansas and current Greenville, South Carolina, training sites.
Little did she know a video shoot with World’s Greatest Team, a media startup, during her time as a University of Arkansas athlete would be used years down the line in preparation for the postponed Tokyo Games.
Morris, after winning a penny-blown-by-straw race in the Holderness family’s Fauxlympics, returned to sanctioned pole vault competition in July.
The Acadia Invitational was held in Greenville at the facility that Morris and her father, Harry, helped build in April as a training site during the pandemic.
“My poor dad worked so hard,” said Morris, who won with a clearance of 4.81 meters, a medal height at the Rio Olympics. “He hand spray-painted these big, 12-foot squares on an entire field so people could social distance.”
Masks were required for the duration of the event in 92-degree heat. Zenni Optical sponsored, making it possible for the top three to get paid. Morris looks ahead to a return to some level of normal.
“We can’t just take a year off and expect to be competitive,” she said.
She hasn’t had access to a hard track for sprint workouts. Typically, Morris sprints daily.
“It’s totally different training on a soccer field,” she said. “Which is still more than so many other athletes have at their disposal.”
Back in March, Morris’ facilities in Arkansas closed, and she moved back to her parents’ house in Greenville.
She made the road trip with one of her three snakes, Fang (a ball python named after Hagrid‘s dog in Harry Potter). Her Italian greyhounds, Rango and Nim, and birds, Indi and Juniper, joined for the pandemic adventure as well. “It’s a zoo in this house,” Morris said.
She still needed a place to jump.
For three weeks, Morris plied on her hands and knees, pounding 15 eight-foot-long wooden frames into an angled grass field to create an outdoor pole vault runway. Her team included her father, a few hometown hero volunteers and others from Greenville cheering them on. One day, a hammer flew haphazardly, nearly taking her out.
Morris received a donated pit from a sponsor. She spent $4,000 toward the wood, rubber runway and hardware to make her father’s long-existing dream into a reality.
The pit’s life will extend well beyond the extenuating circumstances of the pandemic. Morris plans to return for training camps and host summer camps and clinics for high school and college athletes in the future.
It will also serve as a unique opportunity to invite other elites to join her for training sessions. That could include pole vaulters from Clemson, where Morris’ 59-year-old dad is a volunteer pole vault coach.
The Olympic postponement also impacted Morris’ husband. Tyrone Smith, 36, is a three-time Olympic long jumper for Bermuda and an MBA student at the University of Texas. Smith planned to end his Olympic career in Tokyo this summer.
When the Olympic postponement was announced, Smith took a week or two to weigh whether to tack on another year.
“Ultimately, the decision was that I was always going to try to make it,” said Smith, who wed Morris last October. “It was just figuring out logistically how I was going to make that happen.
“I had motivation from being with Sandi and having the chance to do something special together. We didn’t really get to experience it [the Games] together as a couple. Having the opportunity to have those moments together, that we can share with our family, and if we have kids one day, to share those with our kids. It’s incredibly rare to do that.”
Smith recently began an internship as a brand marketer with Sony PlayStation to launch the PS5. He had a teaching position lined up, too. But after hearing about the postponed Olympics, he adapted.
Like his wife, Smith had to build his own training setup.
He bought a shovel and garden rake from Home Depot. Over a few weekends, for about three hours at a time, he excavated an entire sand pit in Austin.
It wasn’t the first time Smith felt the need to show what he could do.
“I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder trying to prove to myself that I belong at this level,” he said.
Two decades ago, Smith walked through the gym of North Chicago Community High School while coach Trent Robinson taught girls how to triple jump.
“Can I learn?” Smith asked.
Robinson obliged. No one on the boys’ team knew how to triple jump, or was particularly eager to learn. Smith made all-county and all-conference after training for two months.
He walked on at the University of Missouri-Rolla (UMR), now the Missouri University of Science and Technology, a Division II track team, as a triple jumper.
It wasn’t until Smith’s sophomore year that he found a coach, Bryan Schiding, who encouraged him to consistently long jump. Years later, Schiding stood as a groomsman in Smith and Morris’ wedding.
Smith and Morris have yet to live in the same city in their four-year relationship.
“We’ve been scheming, and planning,” Morris said. “It hasn’t quite lined up yet.”
Whether Smith is pursuing an MBA, or pushing his limits to qualify for a postponed Olympic Games, one thing is certain.
“I will stand by whatever he decides to do,” she said.
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