EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — All it took was one hop, step and long leap into the sand to remind everyone of what they already knew — Will Claye is the clear favorite in the triple jump at the Tokyo Olympics.
The 30-year-old Claye, who also happens to be a hip-hop recording artist and the subject of a documentary, needed just one qualifying jump at the U.S. track and field trials to earn the top spot for Monday's final. He looked as smooth as ever Saturday night inside Hayward Field and like that torn Achilles tendon — the one he suffered after grabbing a rebound in a friendly basketball game — was no longer an issue.
It sure could've been. He ruptured the tendon just months before 2020 Tokyo Games and probably wouldn't have been back in time had the pandemic not postponed the Olympics to this summer.
That's put him in another unique position: gold-medal favorite. That falls on him, and lends itself to the ultimate irony: His friend, main rival and two-time defending Olympic champion Christian Taylor got sidelined by his own ruptured Achilles tendon last month.
Claye’s vow to Taylor — and himself: “I will hold things down until Christian returns.”
"I’m back and feeling like myself again and feeling better,” added Claye, who's also declared in the long jump. “I want to go out there and put on a show.”
The last time the world saw Claye, he was bounding into the stands soon after earning silver at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. Once there, he dropped to a knee and proposed to hurdler Queen Harrison with a ring he brought in his backpack.
Quick update: They got married. They’ve launched a fashion line called “Elevate.” He recently released a hip-hop single titled “ Wee Hours" and it dropped at the same time as his documentary film “Elevate,” which was a project through his sponsor Red Bull.
The only thing missing: That elusive Olympic gold medal.
In the last two versions of the Olympics, Claye had finished runner-up to Taylor. They’ve brought out the best out in each other since even before becoming teammates at the University of Florida (Claye started at Oklahoma before transferring).
Although his heart aches for Taylor, Claye issued a promise — he would do his best to keep the medal in the American family.
“He’s strong,” Claye said. “You know he’ll be back. But I really feel for Christian.”
Most of the time, Claye is mild-mannered. But once he steps onto the track for a meet or into the recording studio he transforms into his persona, “Ill Will.”
“You don’t want to mess with that person,” cracked Claye, who's sponsored by Puma. “That person is locked in and focused where everything flows.”
Just like his verses in “Wee Hours,” a collaboration with DJ Khalil. A sample lyric: “Troubles ain’t going to last you always.”
It's the perfect song for the documentary, which provides a glimpse into Claye's world as he trains for the Olympics and makes music. It also reflects on his life growing up near Phoenix.
One poignant scene in the film was Claye and his wife — who's also competing at the trials — talking over dinner about race and society.
Claye: “How does it feel to compete for the United States but then feel like underrepresented by the country in some instances?”
Harrison-Claye: “I think it’s twofold, because to me I do feel like anytime do have an American flag on my chest, I felt super supportive by America. Now, the issues come when I'm not in uniform. Do I get that same respect? I don’t.”
His jumping ability took him all over the world.
Some of his friends weren’t so lucky.
“I know I’m one in a million, and I slipped through cracks," Claye said in a recent phone interview. "I saw a lot of people going down the wrong path — a path that led to prison or death. There has to be a different narrative.”
That's his message to kids when he talks at clinics: Set lofty goals.
“I want to be a regular person to (kids), talk to them and let them know they’re special and smart and gifted and just really show them that I’m no different from them,” Claye said.
Claye was playing basketball in November 2019 when he tore his Achilles tendon.
“Felt like a bad Charley horse,” Claye explained. “I tried to walk it off and it wasn’t going away."
Just seven months before the scheduled start of trials, too.
“I was pushing for it,” Claye said of his comeback. “My doctor was literally telling me, ‘This is going to be a record-breaking comeback if you can do this.’ I was very close.”
The postponement allowed him to ease back.
Now, he's steadily returning to form and logged a jump of 56 feet, 3 1/4 inches (17.15 meters) on May 9. His best-ever effort is 59-6 1/4 (18.14) in 2019, which puts him only behind record-holder Jonathan Edwards and Taylor on the all-time list.
Claye needed just one leap Saturday — 55-3 1/2 (16.85) — to secure the top spot out of qualifying.
“This is a special year," Claye said. "Coming from where we came from — with the pandemic and so much turmoil — I want to go out there and break free of all that, be an inspiration on the track. That’s why I don’t take this lightly.”
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Pat Graham, The Associated Press