Men's Track & Field Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – On the walls of his office inside the Lemerand Center, Florida assistant track and field coach Dick Booth has photos of some of the best triple jumpers he has coached.
They are also some of the best the sport has known.
There’s a photo of Mike Conley, who won gold in the triple jump at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. In another photo, Jerome Romain and Brian Wellman stand next to one another. Romain was a 1996 Olympian and Wellman won two NCAA outdoor triple-jump titles.
Booth coached all three during his 27-year career at Arkansas, where as field-events coach, Booth taught 11 Olympians and 45 individual NCAA champions.
In his second season as jumps coach on Gators head coach Mike Holloway’s staff, Booth often reflects on the possibilities surrounding Florida’s special trio of triple-jump specialists: Christian Taylor, Will Claye and Omar Craddock.
Booth has been around track and field most of his adult life – he served as jumps coach for Team USA at the 2000 Sydney Games – but his excitement is discernible regarding Florida’s current triple threat.
“I’ve never had a better group than those three,’’ Booth said. “We could go 1-2-3 [at the NCAA Championships]. That’s a long shot, but we could do that.’’
Taylor is the most accomplished of the threesome. A junior from Fayetteville, Ga., Taylor is the two-time defending NCAA indoor champion in the triple jump and also won the 2010 national outdoor title.
He is attempting this spring to become only the fourth athlete in NCAA history to win three consecutive indoor national titles. Booth also coached the previous three athletes to do it.
Conley (1983-85), Erick Walder (1992-94) and Robert Howard (1996-98) each accomplished the rare feat during their careers with the Razorbacks. Taylor reminds Booth of perhaps his most famous pupil.
“Christian is built and looks just like Mike Conley,’’ Booth said. “Christian is a very gifted young man. He’s a tall, lanky guy. He’s got a big spread. He can stretch and pull. He’s got good speed. He’s got all that.’’
Taylor is ranked the nation’s No. 1 triple jumper according to Track and Field News. But when he shows up to practice each day, he knows that means little with Claye and Craddock staring his way and saying “show me what you’ve got.”
The three often treat practice as their own personal Olympics, understanding that if they can beat each other, they can beat anyone they will face during the season.
“It’s crazy. To have us all together, it’s almost like a miracle,’’ Taylor said. “No one in the world can have a training group like we have.’’
Claye is the newcomer to the group. The 2009 NCAA outdoor triple-jump national champion as a freshman at Oklahoma, Claye transferred to Florida to be a part of something special. He can compete immediately under NCAA transfer rules for track and field.
Claye grew up in Phoenix and often bumped into Craddock, from Kileen, Texas, at AAU meets out West. The two formed a bond due to their close competitions on the track.
“All I can say is that I was winning, and then he beat me on the last jump,’’ Craddock said. “It always happens when we compete. There’s a little grudge thing when we both step on the runway.’’
Claye moved in with Craddock after he arrived in Gainesville. They live right down the street from Taylor.
He often reminds Craddock of their past battles.
“I always seem to edge him out on the last jump,’’ Claye said. “We talk a lot of trash even at home, in practice. But it’s all in fun.’’
As a sophomore last season at Oklahoma, Claye’s performance dropped off due to stress fractures in his back and leg.
“He should have been redshirted,’’ Booth said.
Instead, Claye battled through the various injuries but was unable to duplicate the success of his freshman season. Looking to rejuvenate his career, he opted to come to Florida to work under Booth, who recruited all three athletes when he was at Arkansas.
While Taylor uses his long and lean body to excel, Claye’s technique is based more on pure speed.
“Christian, he’s probably not quite – and it’s hard to say this – he’s probably not quite as dynamic as Will Claye as far as getting on and off the ground,’’ Booth said. “We do drills and I watch how long it takes them to go from a flat-footed position to getting off the ground. Will will get off the ground in four clicks on the [timing] machine frequently. Christian does so less frequently.”
Claye started to take triple jumping more serious in high school after hurting his knee as a hurdler. He said the physical problems that plagued him last season are history.
In what will be his first major test of the spring season, Claye is eyeing a strong performance at the Texas A&M Challenge on Jan. 28-29.
Until then, he’ll continue to watch and learn from Taylor and Craddock each day in practice, fully aware of how there’s no better way to judge where he is than comparing his performance against his two teammates.
“All three of us are different jumpers,’’ Claye said. “Christian and Omar are more power jumpers. I’m more of a speed jumper. We just have different techniques, but at the end of the day, we all work on the same things and tell each other what we’re doing out there to try and help each other out.’’
Craddock is the most raw of the threesome. A sophomore, Craddock made a splash as a freshman by winning the triple-jump title at the prestigious Penn Relays Carnival last season.
He ranks third on UF’s all-time men’s indoor triple-jump list with a best mark of 53 feet, 1.5 inches. That’s a little more than three feet shy of Taylor’s school-record triple jump of 56-4.50.
While not as polished as Taylor and Claye, Craddock can be just as dangerous by the time the indoor national finals roll around in late March.
“We’ve got national champions lined up. And then we’ve got Omar -- he could probably win if not for them,’’ Booth said. “He’s a tough guy, he’s a strong guy, and he’s aggressive and he’ll do things hard.
“If the other two guys relax at all, he’ll get them. He is a tremendous young jumper.’’
Craddock also brings a kind of energy to the group that his older teammates feed off. Taylor called it a “confident vibe.’’ Claye’s transition has been eased by Craddock’s presence since the two already knew each other.
When they’re at home, their competition carries over to video games and whatever else they can keep score at.
When they return to practice, Craddock sometimes looks at his older teammates and counts his blessings because there is nowhere he would rather be.
“Now that we are all together, it’s going to push us to be the best three triple jumpers in the NCAA, period,’’ Craddock said.
In his ninth season at Florida’s head coach, Holloway is counting on points from the triple-jump trio regularly as the Gators start their quest for a second consecutive NCAA indoor national title.
The program is loaded with some of the best athletes during Holloway’s tenure, including sprinter Jeff Demps, the NCAA defending indoor champion in the 60 meters.
Still, Holloway appreciates the unique situation the Gators have with Taylor, Claye and Craddock challenging each other daily.
“You are talking about three of the best guys in the country,’’ Holloway said. “We feel like they are at least three of the top four or five guys in the country. They want to leave a special mark on not only the University of Florida, but track and field itself.”
Holloway said it’s not unusual for other members of the team to stop what they’re doing to watch the three perform their drills in practice. Booth is usually somewhere nearby, watching like a proud father dreaming of what might be.
If they stay healthy and perform to their ability, Booth will have some new photos to add to the walls inside his office someday.
“It’s very exciting,’’ Booth said. “I think there are some historical things that could happen. And I’m not trying to over blow this season, but I think this could be the best track team that I’ve ever been associated with, and I’ve been associated with probably the best ones.
“We’ve got some special people. And then to think that this group of jumpers could be the most special part of this very special team …”
Booth never finished the thought, but you can imagine what he was thinking.