March 25, 2014
By Christopher Walsh
It's called the hop, step and jump event of track and field, but when it comes to the triple jump University of Alabama coach Dan Waters considers its competitors the sport's version of a linebacker playing with a fracture or a basketball player trying to cut on a sprained ankle.
The wear and tear of the event, from sprinting as fast as possible, planting and launching oneself with one foot, landing and doing the same thing with the other, and then once again for the actual jump, all without losing momentum, isn't exactly natural - or friendly - for the human body.
"It's absolutely one of the most bone-jarring events you can do," Waters said. "No one's ever completely healthy. No one feels good. The guys who really jump far, it's a testament to how tough they are."
It's also reflective of Imani Brown's career with the Crimson Tide so far. While just a sophomore, he's already experienced a lot of the highs and lows than can occur in the triple jump, which requires both precision and a sort of reckless abandon for success.
From the conditioning to trying to master the rhythm of the approach, consistency at such a high level can be more than daunting, and is certainly tougher than it looks.
"It's worse when you're not doing it right," Brown said about the physical tolls.
Brown hails from Reading, Pa., a blue-collar city that's struggling economically following numerous plant closings, and may be best known for the former real-life railroad that was one of the four represented in the board game "Monopoly".
Located approximately halfway between Philadelphia and the state capital of Harrisburg, with Allentown just to the northeast, it's on the other end of the state from where Joe Namath grew up (the drive from Beaver Falls is roughly 300 miles). Regionally, cheesesteaks may get the most attention food-wise, but Reading is especially known for its pretzel bakeries.
"It's very different," Brown said. "It's a medium-sized city. Just different culture and different attitude, I like to call it. That's it; I have a hard time describing the differences."
When not hanging out at the popular King of Prussia Mall, a 45-minute interstate drive to the other side of Valley Forge, Brown started competing in track and field at the age of 14 and helped lead Reading High School to both the state championship in 2011 and the New Balance national championship in 2012.
What drew his attention to Alabama, though, was the new coaching staff hired in 2011, including legendary Dick Booth, who over the years has had 49 NCAA individual champions and 165 All-Americans, mostly at Arkansas (1978-84 and 1988-2009). Brown thought his jumping style was comparable to the Razorbacks' Brian Wellman, the 1995 indoor world champion, and was also a fan of Will Claye at Florida, who won the silver medal in the triple jump and the bronze in the long jump at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.
So, after finding that he liked the atmosphere at the Capstone, Brown made the "hop" south.
But things didn't initially go quite as expected, which is not uncommon for freshmen athletes.
"I call it an accumulated fatigue, both mental and physical," Booth said. "In high school kids are usually doing football and other things, so track usually starts in February or March and lasts about 20 minutes and they're done. They don't really have a chance to get serious and have prolonged training."
That changes almost the moment they step on campus in the fall, when in addition to the culture and academic shocks of collegiate life they experience something similar to what the football players do going training camp in 90-plus degree heat. Like Nick Saban, Booth's secret to success is, simply, hard work.
"They just can't have the concept of doing just the exercises," says Booth, who during his first two years at Alabama had his jumpers land 11 All-American honors (five indoor, six outdoor). "They never heard of them and, then, to do them in sand, or up a hill, or in a stadium, or whatever. Its like, ‘This is crazy'. But I say to them, ‘doesn't this make triple-jumping seem easy?'"
In his first indoor season at Alabama in 2013, Brown finished a disappointing 14th at the 2013 Southeastern Conference Championships, with a jump of 49-3. However, something started to click in the weeks and months to follow during the subsequent outdoor season.
"He made a decision to turn around," Waters said.
More focused and acclimated, Brown finished fifth at the 2013 SEC Outdoor Championships (50-4 1/2), placed 12th in the NCAA East Regional to advance, and earned All-America honors with a sixth-place finish at the 2013 NCAA Championships by posting a season-best 52-2½ (15.91 meters).
"I just peaked at the right time," said Brown, who had made the award his personal goal and now keeps it in his room on the desk next to his bed.
It was an important step in his development, but this second year has brought a different kind of challenge, one that could push him even more for the rest of his career. When Alabama added Jeremiah Green of Tampa, Fla., to the roster, Brown went from facing top competition in meets to seeing it every day at the Sam Bailey Track & Field Stadium.
In addition to being one of three Crimson Tide athletes to win individual titles at the recent 2014 SEC Indoor Championships (with a personal-best jump of 53 feet, 5½ inches), Green became the first athlete in program history to be named the SEC's Freshman Field Athlete of the Year.
Ideally, Alabama could potentially produce a lot of 1-2 finishes down the road, only Brown saw his indoor season end early due to a hamstring injury. Regardless, he's expecting a competitive "jump," perhaps as soon this spring's outdoor season.
"A lot of people wouldn't like someone like that," Brown said about Green. "I like that. I've got the guy who's going to be doing great and I know is consistent, so if I can practice with that guy, whether he's older or younger or whatever, it just helps me become better. It always lets me know if someday I'm not feeling well or whatever, I've got to keep up with him, especially in the sprints because he's fast.
"It's harder sometimes, but I'd rather have it hard in the practices and easier in the meets."
Of course that's the aim, to have everything in place and gel the way Brown's rookie season did last year, when his biggest jump came at the most opportune time. In Reading, someone might have described it as "Bee-yood-ee-ful," because what he accomplished that day last June was so much more than just a hop, skip and a jump.
"There are three parts to the triple," Brown explained. "You can have two parts and one bad part, that's a bad jump. Everything has to click together for it to be one of those special jumps.
"It's really all together. Any part messed up will pretty much kill your triple jump."