Yulimar Rojas celebrates a gold and world record_photo by Willie Banks

The lanky woman from Venezuela was psyching herself up for her fifth leap. She took a deep breath, clapped her hands and then let her breath out in a big shout. She blurted out some words of encouragement, and began that rhythmic clap over her head, prompting the crowd to clap.

And then she began her run.

“Oh it’s massive! It’s absolutely massive,” exclaimed the play-by-play announcer.  “But it’s a red flag unfortunately.” The replay showed her toe 7.5 cm over the limit.

Yulimar Rojas had clearly set a world record in her fifth jump at the finals of the Tokyo2020 women’s triple jump competition at the National Stadium on the evening of August 1, if not for the foot fault. In fact, she did the same thing two leaps earlier, a world record jump unrealized for a second time because she stepped significantly beyond the line.

Rojas right now is so dominant that her first attempt of 15.41 meters was an Olympic record, and as subsequent leaps from her competitors showed, was good enough for gold. If she could only start her leap before the plastic board, she’d  set the world record.

Two-time Olympian Willie Banks knows this. The first man to start the modern-day tradition of clapping hands over one’s head to get the crowd into the moment, Banks too set the world record for the men’s triple jump on June 16, 1985 in Indianapolis.

Willie Banks of the World Athletics Council, at the National Stadium during the Athletics competitions.

Banks is in Tokyo serving on the Jury of Appeals for the World Athletics Council. He was present during the women’s triple jump and told me he knew Rojas was going to break the record, that it was just a matter of time. In the case of Rojas, she was so talented that it didn’t matter too much whether she launched perfectly from the board or not.

Too many people focus on the board. A lot will jump really well and not touch the board. For her, what matters are where your hips are in relation to the board. She has long legs relative to her body, which is important. A light body on top of your legs, like she has, helps as her legs are going to do the work. On top of that, she has very good acceleration, and so she is able to get good lift off the board without having to extend too much.

And so when her competitors failed to come close, Rojas approached her final attempt as a chance to put her name in the history books.

Rojas’s coach whistled encouragement. Rojas let out a shout. She swung her arms, got the audience clapping, and started off on a momentous spring. Her first hop was long, her second was flat, but her third launched her into the air and beyond the line for a world record. A white flag went up – no foul!

She did it – the first woman from Venezuela to win a gold medal. Her hands went to the back of her head, her mouth agape. She turned suddenly and nearly ran over the cameraman and let out a mighty yelp. Rojas triple jumped to 15.67 meters, way past the world record of 15.5 meters, set by Inessa Kravets of the Ukraine almost 11 years ago.

Banks thinks that Rojas has a long career ahead and can smash the 16-meter barrier if she makes one improvement.

“That middle step is kind of short,” he explained. “She makes up for it on her jump phase at the end, but what could she accomplish if she got it right? I hope she doesn’t get too comfortable like I did, and work on improving, so she can blast past 16 meters.”

But for now, Banks believes she is great for the sport.

Photo from Willie Banks.

“She’s energetic,” said Banks. “She’s empathetic, and I like that she shows her emotion, that she is enjoying this all the time. When you’re enjoying the sport, you are demonstrating the purest form of the sport, something I have always strived for, but never quite got to. But when you’re as good as Rojas, you can really enjoy yourself.”