On Aug. 5, Dominican triple jumper Thea LaFond returns to the world stage of athletics as she aims to redeem her disappointment from the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics with satisfaction in London.
Qualifying for her first senior level IAAF World Championship, with a new personal, national and stadium record at the Penn Relays, LaFond’s 14.20-meter jump (46.7-25 feet) is hopefully symbolic of a new era in the 23-year-old’s young career.
“I lunged head first into making sure this year was going to be a lot more dominant than 2016,” said LaFond.
Born in Roseau, LaFond emigrated with her family to the U.S. when she was a girl, eventually settling in Silver Spring, Maryland where she would take up track and field. She was able to acquire dual citizenship status between the two countries, which allows her to compete for Dominica.
The past couple of years for LaFond can be easily defined by transition.
She graduated from the University of Maryland in 2015, where she starred in the high jump, long jump and hurdles along with the triple and began to pursue her professional athletic aspirations, all the while having to balance training and serving as an assistant coach for the local high school track & field programs.
“2016 was my first year out, so transitioning from collegiate to professional was kind of rough,” she said.
She eventually changed coaches and began to focus solely on the triple jump. Despite the limited accessibility to a full-time coach, LaFond deemed the payoff would be worth it. “I saw it as a place where I had so much room to grow.”
It was an event where she had already shown world class proclivities, representing her native Dominica in the 2011 and 2013 CARIFTA Games, the 2012 IAAF World Junior Championships in Barcelona and the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. She even set a personal best as an American schoolgirl six years ago to win the Penn Relays High School Girls Triple Jump Championship in her senior year, beating out girls from all over the planet.
The event would ultimately see her qualifying for the Olympics with an outdoor personal best and national record of 13.41-meters (43 feet) jump through the Dominican Olympic Committee’s selection process, teaming up with her male triple jump counterpart in Yordanys Durañona Garcia, to represent Dominica.
Universally regarded as the pinnacle competition of the sport, the Olympics is what virtually all young runners, throwers and jumpers envision for themselves at some level. It’s a stage where names such as Sanya Richards, Allyson Felix, Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell and even fellow Dominican and legendary Caribbean triple jumper Jérome Romain, all who LaFond grew up idolizing, had been, and in most cases, were gracing in Brazil.
“It was kind surreal walking past people you grew up watching on TV and watching their races over and over again on YouTube.”
However, it would not be until she failed to make it out of the preliminary rounds in Rio (in part due to a nagging hamstring injury), that her most meaningful shift to date would be spurred.
“One of my biggest takeaways was that I realized I have what it takes to get to the next level and be great, but what I was doing at the time was not setting me up for success,” she said.
As soon as LaFond got back, she made it her top priority to shake things up. “It meant getting a new coach, changing my jump…..my run, my approach.”
Upon networking with some of her Olympic contacts, she was introduced to Aaron Gadson, a former jumper at Cornell University and local high school track and field coach in suburban Maryland near where she was raised, who revolutionized her entire approach.
It was here she was confronted with the idea of using her left instead of right leg for the jump phase of the triple, as well as becoming a double-arm jumper, commonly seen in male triple jumping form.
With Gadson, LaFond has implemented a new training regimen, zoning in on a nuanced balance between exercise and rest.
“Recovery is definitely a key component to my training,” said LaFond, who knows all too well the burden of trying to contend for a championship while nursing an injury.
She works out six days a week, lifting five days (usually in the mornings), with the afternoons being occupied with jump and sprint training. There is one day of full rest, one day of partial rest and alternating days with emphasis on speed and jump.
“Going into worlds we have slightly higher weights and lower reps, one day of complete rest and one day of just lifting,” said LaFond.
In addition, a weekly visit to world renowned Olympic and USATF certified athletic trainer (ATC) Raju Mantina for therapeutic stretching and massages is a key part of the deal. “This man knows the anatomy of muscle structure like no one I’ve ever met,” she said.
Their competition schedule has consisted of approximately two meets a month, competing in events large and small, including the New Jersey International, Paavo Nurmi Games in Finland, the Jamaica International Invitational IWC Meet and, of course, a huge validation in her return to Penn Relays glory only a few months into it.
“It’s definitely still a work in progress,” said LaFond. “That’s what makes me almost optimistic about the future, if I’m clearly still working on it, then there is room for more improvement.”
A jump in the 14-meter range is the typical standard for qualification, usually enough to advance to the finals. Olympic Champion Caterine Ibargüen of Colombia jumped 14.52 in qualifying, while eventual bronze medalist Yulimar Rojas of Venezuela jumped 14.21 to qualify for the final. In Rio, four women who qualified for the final had jumps shorter than LaFond’s season and personal best; in Beijing during the last world championships in 2015, six women who qualified landed jumps under 14.2 meters, two less than 14 meters.
The Blue Marlin Track Classic in the Bahamas will be LaFond’s final meet before the world championships.
“Right now, we have been trying to clean-up and stay technically sound and healthy for worlds,” said LaFond.
As far as her ambitions for London, well… “when you compete in anything it should always be podium.”