By Sean Cartell
If you talk to Florida track and field coach Mike Holloway, he will tell you that Will Claye could be the best athlete that you may never have heard of.
Claye, a junior jumper for the Gators and the 2011 Southeastern Conference Men’s Field Athlete of the Year, currently ranks third in the world in the men’s long jump this year and has the third-best wind-aided men’s triple jump in the world this year. He is the top American in the long jump this year - that includes collegians and professionals.
Track and Field News named Claye its Collegiate Indoor Men’s Field Athlete of the Year for his performance at the NCAA Indoor Championships, winning the NCAA Indoor triple jump championship and finishing as the runner-up in the long jump. Claye single-handedly scored 18 of Florida’s 52 points en route to the team’s second consecutive NCAA Indoor Championship.
Maybe it’s his humble attitude. Perhaps because of his laid-back nature. Possibly because he spends most of his interviews crediting his teammates and his coaches. Whatever the reason, Claye’s world-leading accomplishments aren’t being talked about. And that’s just fine with him.
“I don’t think people always appreciate and understand Will Claye,” Holloway said. “In the public spotlight, he kind of gets miraculously pushed to the back burner because of all the great things going on here. In my mind, Will Claye is one of our superstars. He is an SEC Champion in two events. To be one of the best jumpers in the world in the long jump and the triple jump is phenomenal. What Will has done has been incredible. That’s why he came here - he wanted to get better and showcase his talents. He’s doing that.”
You couldn’t ask for a more pressure packed situation than that May Sunday in Athens, Ga.
Claye and teammate Christian Taylor, a three-time NCAA Champion in his own right, were competing for the 2011 SEC Outdoor Championship in the men’s triple jump with implications for the team title on the line.
Many athletes would have been concerned with the field they were competing against, but even to the untrained eye, Claye and Taylor appeared to be in their own bubble. Jump after jump, the two went farther and farther towards the end of the pit. They were celebrating together, respecting the field, but acting, in a sense, like they were the only participants in the competition.
Holloway, warming up his sprinters in the adjacent field, knew that his jumpers were impressing at the league meet, solely based on the reactions of the crowd.
“Those guys don’t fear anybody,“ Holloway said. “It was interesting being in the warm-up area for SECs, because Christian went 56 and someone said to me ‘Will’s on the runway - you know what’s coming, they’re going to go back and forth.’ We had members of our team warming up for the relays and they hear the crowd keep going ‘Wow’ and it was because of our guys in the triple jump.”
Claye, who a day prior had captured the SEC long jump championship, won the triple jump event with a wind-assisted leap of 17.24m/56-6.75 (+2.2). Taylor, the defending champion in the event, placed second, but set the SEC meet record with a wind-legal jump of 17.15m/56-3.25 (+1.4).
Claye credits his teammate with putting the pressure on him to succeed at the highest level.
“Christian and I are always going at it, so I have to always stay on my toes with him,” Claye said. “I know what the best guy in the nation is doing, so I just try to match what he does at practice.”
In fact, Florida’s practices are so intense with Claye, Taylor and teammate Omar Craddock, who currently is recovering from a bruised heel injury, that each member of the jumps corps generally finds practice more competitive than the team’s actual meets.
“It’s just like practice out there,” Claye said. “Christian and I push each other every day and it is always just like another day out there. The whole SEC meet altogether was a blessing for me. We were both fired up and we had a lot in us. It was a great meet, but I wish we would have on the team title.”
Taylor, a friend to Claye off the track, has the same mindset and notes that the camaraderie cannot be overlooked as a key component in the group’s success.
“Will is a great guy,” Taylor said. “I work with him everyday and, the thing is, we practice like we’re going to compete. At the meet, we’re having fun because we have put in the work and have done what we’ve needed to do. It’s important in sports to have fun and I think that’s what we do.”
Holloway agrees, saying Claye’s competitiveness coupled with his practice partners has made him one of the nation’s top athletes.
“Will is the ultimate competitor,” Holloway said. “He knows he has a guy right here on his team and they push each other everyday in practice. He knows what to expect and he knows how to raise himself to that level. He just wants to be the best and, having a guy right next to him in Christian who also wants to be the best, kind of helps the situation.”
Rewind to a year ago in Norman, Okla. Claye was in his second year competing for the Sooners, where he won the NCAA Outdoor Championships in 2009. Current Florida jumps coach Dick Booth had recruited him.
A dynamic rookie campaign that saw him break the U.S. Junior National record in the men’s triple jump with a mark of 17.19m/56-4.75 had transitioned into an injury-plagued season, in which Claye competed, but struggled due to his ailment.
He placed 10th at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in 2010, but was looking for a fresh start. Everywhere he turned, he was advised to join the Gators. It would be the best fit and the best coaching for him, many whom he consulted told him.
He couldn’t have envisioned how well that would pay off.
“Last year wasn’t the year that I wanted,” Claye said candidly. “To come from that to winning a national championship already this year has made it that much more special.”
Claye has joined what some have deemed the most dynamic jumps group in collegiate track and field history. The Gators have a chance to win the first NCAA Outdoor Championship in program history next week in Des Moines, Iowa, and the junior transfer understands the impact his jumps group could make in that effort.
“Coming off regionals, a lot of us qualified and we know we’re contenders for the national title,” Claye said. “We just have faith in our training that we can go out there and compete to the best of our abilities. Jumps are going to contribute. We brought a lot of points to the table at indoors and we just want to help win the team title. I’m just going to go out there and do my best.”
Holloway is focused on winning due to broad-based success, but he also knows the unique nature of the scoring opportunity presented by his men’s jumpers. The unique nature of an athlete of Claye’s ability doesn’t hurt either.
“When you go into a competition as a coach, to know going in that if everything goes as planned in the triple jump, you are going to get 18 or more points,” Holloway said. “There are a lot of teams that are trying to get to 18 or 20 points as a team and we are trying to get there in one event. That’s very helpful to the team because they know, like at the NCAA Indoor meet, that we’ve gotten to this point and now we’ve got another 20 something points coming because the triple jump is going on. I think it’s got to help those guys knowing what we can do in that event.”
Fast forward to a morning practice in June at James G. Pressly Stadium at Percy Beard Track in Gainesville. Claye is content with his progress. Each of his teammates brings a different strength to the group. For Claye, it is his elastic nature that he embraces.
“I am an elastic type jumper,” Claye said. “I can just get off the ground fast. If you look at my power-to-weight ratio, I’m not the biggest guy, but I’m probably just as strong as most of the guys who are bigger than me.”
The combination of his strength training program, coupled with his rigorous practices with Booth, considered by many to be the best jumps coach in collegiate history, have helped Claye reach a level of fitness that he feels will translate to great results at next week’s NCAA Championships.
“I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life at this point and I’m only getting better,” Claye said. “I’ve been really pleased with practice and I’m just going to go out there and do my best. I’m in great shape and I think I can go out there and do something crazy.”