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Jeff Henderson, Olympic long jump champion, transitions to coaching

Jeff Henderson, part of a long line of U.S. gold medal-winning long jumpers, has transitioned into coaching in his native Arkansas.

Henderson, the 2016 Olympic champion, began a volunteer role at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in the last month, coaching long jumpers and triple jumpers.

“It’s something I’m just really good at doing, seeing what athletes are lacking the most and helping them get better,” the 34-year-old said. “For me, it’s easy to recognize what’s wrong with an athlete quickly.”

Henderson bowed out from competition in 2022 after jumping through the pain of three bulging disks in his back.

“It was hard for me to get back to where I was, where I used to be,” he said. “It just became harder. My family is kind of on the older side now, so I kind of want to be around them the most. It’s time I really started to worry about that the most.”

In 2016, Henderson went into the Olympic Trials ranked fifth in the nation by best jump that year. He won the Olympic Trials.

He went into the Rio Olympics ranked 22nd in the world by best jump that year. (His farthest jumps at Olympic Trials were wind-aided.) He was the second qualifier into the 12-man final.

He went into the sixth and last round of the Olympic final in fourth place. Henderson then unleashed an 8.38-meter jump, his best in more than a year, to move into first place by one centimeter over South African Luvo Manyonga.

It held up, though there was a nervous wait at the end. The last jumper, American Jarrion Lawson, appeared to rival Henderson’s distance, but he actually dragged his left hand in the sand behind his landing and ended up in fourth.

Henderson dedicated the gold medal to his mom, who was bedridden in Arkansas during the Olympics with Alzheimer’s disease.

As a collegian, Henderson won national titles at three different levels: junior college (long jump, Hinds Community College in Mississippi), NAIA (60m, Florida Memorial University) and Division II (100m and long jump, Stillman College in Alabama).

In Rio, he became best in the world. It marked the 22nd time an American man had won the Olympic long jump in the 28 times it had been contested. Henderson joined a group that included Jesse Owens, Bob Beamon and Carl Lewis.

“I remember the entire thing, the training up to it, what I felt the year before when I didn’t get a medal (at world championships),” Henderson said. “Memories that I’ll never forget.”

In 2016 and in the next Olympic year in 2021, Henderson unsuccessfully tried out for NFL teams, bidding to be a wide receiver with the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers.

“It just played against me not playing in college,” he said.

Henderson placed sixth in his last Olympic Trials in 2021. His last competition was in March 2022. He experienced some of the most severe physical pain of his life in those nine months in between.

He will always have that night in Rio.

“It was perfect timing,” he said. “I’m just grateful, man, really grateful.”