By David Brandt/The Associated Press
OXFORD— Brittney Reese never knew she cared so much. Then the tears began to flow.
It was a few hours after she had finished a disappointing fifth in the long jump at the 2008 Beijing Games. She was riding the shuttle back to her apartment at the Olympic village, staring out the window into the night sky when the finality of the lost opportunity washed over her, setting off the strong emotions.
“I’m not really the type of person who cries, so it shocked me,” Reese said. “That’s when I knew that I really wanted to be the best in the world — that I wanted to dedicate myself to this sport and accomplish everything that I can.”
It wasn’t just a momentary promise of determination. Since the Beijing disappointment, Reese has been the world’s most dominant long jumper, winning four world championships (two indoor and two outdoor), including her most recent victory at Istanbul in March.
Now the ultimate goal awaits: Winning gold at the London games. The 25-year-old Reese is in her prime, ready to overcome the disappointment of four years ago.
She’s trying to become the first American to win the women’s long jump since Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s 1988 victory in Seoul. Now retired, the 50-year-old Joyner-Kersee keeps in touch with Reese, offering encouragement and advice.
“I see her winning the gold medal — I really do,” Joyner-Kersee said. “She’s very consistent with her jumping and she rises to the occasion during big moments. But the thing I like most about her is the joy she brings to the sport. I always say you’ve got to have fun when you play in the sandbox — and Brittney truly enjoys the competition and has worked so hard for this opportunity.”
Reese’s easy-going attitude is borne partly from the fact she’s an unlikely track and field star. The Gulfport, Miss., native’s first love is basketball, and she played at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College for two seasons before transferring to the University of Mississippi so she could finally concentrate on the long jump. Her 5-foot-8, 140-pound frame exudes a lithe athleticism that’s been a natural fit for the long jump — and after years of refinement she’s evolved from a raw talent into one of the world’s best.
She’s continued to train at Ole Miss, even after her college days were over, mainly so she could be close to home and to her coach Joe Walker.
Walker said Reese may have a reputation as a superior athlete — which he agrees is certainly true — but that’s not the only reason she’s ascended to such a high level.
“Obviously, she’s a world-class athlete, but sometimes I think she doesn’t get the credit she deserves for how hard she works at her craft,” Walker said. “Her mental strength is what’s most overlooked about her skill set. She just doesn’t lose very often. When she needs a big jump, she gets it, and that’s what separates her from the pack.”
Reese’s nose for the dramatic was on full display in Istanbul, when she won on her final jump. She soared 7.23 meters for the longest jump in the world this year, easily beating the rest of the field and demonstrating just how dominant she can be.
“When it came up on the board, I was shocked,” Reese said. “I felt like it was over 7 meters when I left the board, but that was pretty incredible. The roar of the crowd — it really gave me a lot of confidence heading into London.”
Her success in the long jump has made it easier to put down the basketball, though even five years later she admits the switch is difficult. The last time she was home in Gulfport, her cousins tried to coax her onto the basketball court with a few well-placed barbs about her declining hardcourt skills.
“It was tempting, but I didn’t go out there,” Reese said grinning. “My mom nearly had to drag me out of the gym.”
Reese said she feels more prepared for London than Beijing because she’s used to international competition and her legs haven’t endured such a heavy load. In 2008, the year of Reese’s quick rise, she dominated in the SEC championships, NCAA championships and at the Olympic Trials.
But that success came with a cost. She says once she arrived in Beijing, nerves weren’t a problem. Tired legs were.
“I just didn’t have much left,” Reese said. “So this time I’ve got back a little and should be in top shape. I’m used to competing in international events and know who my top opponents will be. It’s just a matter of getting focused and having a few good jumps in London.”
In her perfect world, Reese will win the gold medal, celebrate for a few weeks and then return home to Gulfport.
And the first thing she’ll do?
Grab her cousins, a basketball and head to the gym.
“They’re going to be in a whole lot of trouble,” Reese said laughing.
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: (at)davidbrandtAP