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Christian Taylor’s sights set on world record after leg switch

Christian Taylor stares toward the sand pit, breathes, steps back and glances down at his feet before sprinting down the triple jump runway. Inside his shoes, the number 18.30 is written.

“I put it on the inside because the [broadcast] camera will show the outside of the shoes,” Taylor said. “The inside is my personal thing.”

On Aug. 27, Taylor hopped, skipped and jumped 18.21 meters, or 59 feet, 9 inches, to win the World Championship at the Bird’s Nest, the Beijing 2008 Olympic Stadium.

It was the second-longest triple jump of all time, a little more than a cigarette’s length shy of the 20-year-old world record -- 18.29.

Taylor, a 25-year-old who splits training between Gainesville, Fla., and the Netherlands, is one of the top U.S. track and field gold-medal hopes for Rio and can become the first repeat Olympic triple jump champion since 1976.

Taylor would rather retire years from now as the world-record holder at 18.30 meters (or greater) than two-time Olympic champion, if he could only choose one of those labels.

Neither looked likely two years ago.

“I received plenty of phone calls from fellow coaches, fellow athletes,” said Taylor’s Barbadian father, Ian, his coach growing up in Fayetteville, Ga., an Atlanta suburb. “Most people thought that his career was over.”

Taylor developed left knee pain in 2013 due to what’s believed to be a congenital condition. His mother’s side of the family had a history of knee surgeries and replacements.

A doctor prescribed rest rather than an operation -- but Taylor tried something else. He punched the reset button on his career.

Taylor and his coach since 2011, Rana Reider, decided the best way to deal with the left knee pain in jumping was to transfer the weight to the right knee.

Taylor had learned how to triple jump and won the 2012 Olympics hopping off his left leg, skipping off his left leg and jumping off his right leg.

In late 2013, he started doing the exact opposite, changing from left-left-right to right-right-left in triple jumping.

“There was a huge risk,” Reider said. “It’s a nerve-racking experience to think about switching, but thinking about longevity, it’s something you have to do.”

Taylor couldn’t think of any Olympic medal-caliber triple jumper having switched legs.

He likened the difference to shooting lay-ups with different hands. Reider compared it to writing with one’s right hand for a decade and then changing to the left.

“We threw everything away we had done in terms of training to start over,” said Reider, who recruited Taylor to the University of Florida in 2008, left UF for another coaching job before Taylor’s first freshman meet and then started coaching him as a professional before Taylor won his first World title in 2011.

Taylor first learned what 18.30 meant in high school.

That’s when Taylor’s Barbadian father, a computer scientist who worked for Delta Airlines for 18 years, told him he needed to earn a college sports scholarship because he wouldn’t pay tuition for such an athletically gifted child.

The tall, slender Georgian had always played soccer, but the Taylors eventually decided track and field would be the ticket. The fastest and tallest kid in class, he was encouraged to give the sport a try in school.

He tasted sprints (“got destroyed”), the long jump (“boring”), even cross-country (“running 10 miles to practice is not normal”) and high jump (“bad knees”) before settling on the triple jump.

Neither father nor son knew much about the event. Ian sought out beginner triple jump VHS tapes and DVDs.

“The video has been watched so much, sometimes you have to reel it back with your finger,” Taylor said. “It’s corny. When I look back at it now, how did I ever learn?”

One of Taylor’s first questions was, “What’s the world record?” Taylor triple jumped 40-something feet at the time.

So he brought measuring tape to his high school track and laid out the distance of the farthest triple jump ever -- 60 feet, or one-and-a-half school buses.

“The tape went all the way to the grass behind the [sand] pit,” Taylor said. “I said this is impossible.”

Hungry, Taylor pledged to triple jump 52 feet in high school and displayed the number in a place he would see it daily.

He set state high school records in the long jump, triple jump and 400m, captured the 2007 World Youth title in the triple jump and, as a senior, was named the Georgia Gatorade Athlete of the Year for track and field in 2008. And he reached his 52-foot goal.

Reider noticed. He was then a University of Florida assistant coach for field events, after having also worked with several Olympians including Bryan Clay, the eventual 2008 Olympic decathlon champion.

Reider, whom Taylor’s father praised as “the biggest nerd I’ve ever known,” tried to woo Taylor away from Florida State in recruiting at their Fayetteville home.

He brought graphs, charts and data to explain the scientific route to becoming an Olympic champion in four years.

"[Taylor] was bored to death listening to me talk,” Reider said. “It went OK with the parents. When he’s only 17, you’ve got to sell the parents first.”

Taylor visited Gainesville, returned and nixed his verbal commitment to Florida State. FSU at the time had an assistant who once helped coach the retired British world-record holder Jonathan Edwards.

“My parents believed UF was the best place for me with their academic/athletic program as a whole,” Taylor said.

Taylor improved to 17.40 meters (57 feet) at UF before turning professional following his junior season and reuniting with Reider, who had left Gainesville two years earlier to start coaching his own stable of pros.

At the September 2011 World Championships, Taylor won gold with a 17.96-meter triple jump, then the ninth-farthest of all time.

That proved to be his peak jumping left-left-right.

At the London Olympics, Taylor easily advanced through qualifying with the best mark (17.21 meters). But in the final, he fouled on his first two attempts. If he fouled on his third attempt, he would not receive the final three jumps and be eliminated.

So before his third attempt, Reider told Taylor to detach himself from the triple jump for about 1 minute, 40 seconds.

“Watch history being made,” Reider told him.

Out on the track, the men’s 800m final went off in the time between Taylor’s second and third jumps.

Taylor’s eyes followed Kenyan David Rudisha, a Maasai warrior who broke his two-lap world record in not only the fastest 800m in history for all finishers one-through-eight, but also arguably the greatest event across all sports at the Games.

“Hearing the announcers and hearing the crowd, it kind of gave me a chance to get my mind off all the negativity and doubts,” Taylor said. “I said, well, I want to have my moment also.”

Taylor calmed down, nailed his third jump (a “safety” mark of 17.15 meters) to earn three more and then leaped 17.81 meters on his fourth attempt to become the youngest Olympic triple jump champion in 100 years.

Taylor waited for Usain Bolt to finish his 200m final to take his victory lap and then, in drug testing later that night, discussed college football with newly crowned Olympic decathlon champion Ashton Eaton of Oregon.

(Taylor will not get the opportunity to be part of such a star-studded night in Rio, as the men’s triple jump final will be during a morning session)

Taylor was feted in his parents’ native Barbados after the Olympics, visiting five schools. At one of them, children sang a song written about him. There’s been talk a street may be named after him, his father said. Barbados has never had an Olympic champion.

“It is such a small island, there aren’t big things coming out of there -- other than Rihanna,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s jumps continued to shorten in 2013. He still won four of six Diamond League meets before that summer’s World Championships, but the knee pain emerged.

In European hotels, Taylor thought more about how his body would hold up than his competitions the next day. When he won, he considered it lucky.

At Worlds, Taylor mustered 17.20 meters on his final jump to finish fourth. He would wait no longer to make the leg switch.

“That was my only option,” Taylor said. “Like Ricky Bobby says, ‘If you’re not first, you’re last.’ Maybe that’s not the best quote to put out there, but that’s the mentality that I have.”

When Taylor first started working with Reider five years earlier, the coach actually told him he would jump farther using his opposite leg, based on scientific tests. Taylor’s dad asserts that his son once won a high school meet using the other leg.

Taylor and Reider told nobody of their plan to “goof off,” as Reider said, and switch legs for the final Diamond League meet of the 2013 season in Brussels, after the World Championships.

Taylor’s best jump there was 16.89 meters, good enough for second place. It would have put him ninth at the 2012 Olympics, but Taylor smiled even after his worst jump in Brussels, a 16.57-meter mark.

“Clearly it’s not the same Christian Taylor,” track and field commentator Tim Hutchings said on the broadcast, joking that a coaching discussion between Taylor and Reider after that jump would probably be concerning where they would eat dinner that night.

Taylor and Reider were optimistic about the results.

“If I can do [nearly] 17 meters with no training, I’m pretty sure we can work something out,” Taylor said.

Taylor hasn’t jumped the old way since.

He devoted 2014, a fallow year in track and field with no Olympics or World Championships, to the leg switch. Taylor reached 17.51 meters and again captured the season-long Diamond League title.

Then came a flurry of personal bests in 2015. Taylor leaped 18.04 meters on May 15, 18.06 meters on July 9 and then 18.21 meters on Aug. 27 at the World Championships.

The British world-record holder Edwards was in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest commentating for the BBC at Worlds.

When Taylor soared past the 18-meter mark and got out of the pit, Taylor hunched in frustration, thinking he had fouled.

Edwards, with a close-up view of Taylor’s obviously fair jump, grinned and waved his right hand toward his face as if to cool himself off. His record still stood, by the length of a cigarette.

Taylor said he and Edwards have only met and spoken once, before the 2012 Olympics, even though Taylor briefly trained in Great Britain when Reider moved there after the London Games.

Reider’s group is now based in the Netherlands. Taylor still spends autumns in Gainesville, riding an electric bike across campus with the added benefit of attending University of Florida football games.

Taylor may not be too familiar with Edwards, but he has watched the Brit’s world-record leap from 1995 hundreds of times, scrutinizing it from all angles.

“I feel like I’ve jumped it,” Taylor said.

Reider believes Taylor’s jump at the World Championships could have been 20 to 25 centimeters better, easily taking down that 18.29-meter world record.

Taylor took off with 11.5 centimeters to spare on the plasticine before the foul territory and bailed out too early for his landing.

“Just waiting that millisecond longer would’ve made the difference,” Taylor said. “Traditionally, my landing is my best phase.”

Taylor’s leg switch and rise has been accompanied by the emergence of a younger rival, Cuban Pedro Pablo Pichardo, who also broke 18 meters last season. Pichardo, 22, took silver at the 2013 and 2015 World Championships.

“I’ve never seen someone with hops like that,” Taylor said. “Fortunately, he’s not that fast. That’s where I gain on him.”

On the inside of his shoes, on binders, written on workout sheets, Taylor has written both 18.30 and 18.50. When he breaks the world record, he can point to any of them.

“When it happens, you can’t say you were surprised,” Taylor said. “I can always say, look, this is the mindset I had. This is what I’ve been working for every single day.”

NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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