At 28, A Long Jumper Eyes Her Last Olympic Leap

May 2, 2012
Originally published on May 9, 2012 9:44 am

At 28, long jumper Shameka Marshall is training for her last shot at the Olympics. Her attempts to make the team in 2004 and 2008 didn't work out, so this year, she's working hard toward the U.S. track and field team trials in June.

Just 5-foot-2, Marshall also coaches track and field at Temple University in Philadelphia. But before Marshall or her students can practice the long jump, they need to clean the sandpit. On this day, it's Dylan Pensyl's turn.

Rake in hand, Pensyl says, "We've found plenty of lighters, bottles, usually kids' toys and sand toys. But today, we found a hammer. An actual, put-a-nail-in-wood hammer."

That's one of the pitfalls of training at a public field. Some people also just come up to Marshall and butt in.

"Some of them just kinda say, 'Yeah track star, you're a track star' — like want to start a conversation. And I'm training!" she says. "I'm like, 'Now is not the time. I've got two hours set to do what I need to do, and I have to get out of here.' "

So, Marshall has to block out distractions. But she wasn't always so focused on track and field. In high school, she used to hate it.

"And it was like ugh, I don't want to run. I hate this," she says. "You know, I hate the anxiety. I hate being in track, even though I'm good at it."

Marshall was about to turn down three college sports scholarships when her mother told her to pray about it.

"So I did," she says. "And my prayer was like, 'Ugh, Lord, you know I hate track.' And before I could get all of that out of my mouth, it was like: 'This is a gift.' Just, that's what I heard inside of me," Marshall says. "'This is a gift.' And I was like, 'Ah, I can't just throw that away.'"

Marshall makes running and jumping look easy. For the Olympics, she's also training for the hurdles. But the long jump has always been her No. 1 event.

"I can go down the runway, stop midway if I wanted to, and come back. Because I have a whole minute to do what I wanted to do on the runway" in the long jump, she says. "So that was a relaxing situation for me. As opposed to the hurdles: When the gun goes off, you have to run. You know, you can't wait and say, 'Wait I'm not ready, I'm not ready!'"

Marshall says the secret to a good long jump is in the setup. As she runs to the launching board, she listens to her footsteps to make sure she has the right rhythm. It starts off slowly, but still with power.

"Then I move into an area where it's getting sharper and it's getting faster," she says. "Then I get into the last part of my rhythm. That's quick, precise, clean — it's like a clap," she says, slapping her hands together for emphasis. "And that's it. You're in the air, you're floating."

This year, Marshall hopes to jump past 23 feet. And to make it to the Olympics, of course. She says if it doesn't happen, she probably won't try again.

No matter how it turns out, when the track season is over, Marshall will start focusing on her true passion: music. It's what she went to college for.

"My body's not going to be able to do this forever, as far as track and field goes," she says. "But I'll be able to sing for many years."

Marshall is almost ready to start recording the dozens of songs she's written. But first, she has to see just how far she can go with this other gift she was given. She'll find out at the Olympics trials — at Hayward Field, in Eugene, Ore., on June 29.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Finally, this hour, a profile of a long jumper who was training for what's probably her last shot at the Olympics. Shameka Marshall is 28 years old. She tried but didn't make the Olympic team in 2004 and 2008. Four years from now, by track and field standards, she may be too old. Reporter Yowei Shaw checked in with her as she prepares for the Olympic trials next month.

YOWEI SHAW, BYLINE: Shameka Marshall is tiny - only 5 foot, 2 inches - but she flies through the air and lands heels and butt in the sand.

SHAMEKA MARSHALL: Kevin.

SHAW: She also coaches track and field at Temple University in Philadelphia.

MARSHALL: You've done your two laps already?

SHAW: But before Marshall or her students can practice the long jump, they need to clean the sandpit. Today was Dylan Pensyl's turn.

DYLAN PENSYL: We've found kids' toys mainly and like sand toys. But today, we found a hammer, an actual, like, put a nail-in-wood hammer.

SHAW: That's one of the pitfalls of training at a public field. People just come up to Marshall and hit on her or ask questions.

MARSHALL: Some of them just kind of say, yeah, track star, you're a track star, like want to start a conversation. And I'm training. I'm like, now is not the time, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARSHALL: I've got two hours set to do what I need to do, and I have to get out of here, so...

SHAW: So she has to block out distractions. She wasn't always so focused on track and field. In high school, she used to hate it.

MARSHALL: And it was like, ugh, I don't want to run. I hate this. You know, I hate the anxiety. I hate being in track even though I'm good at it.

SHAW: Marshall was about to turn down three college sports scholarships when her mom told her to pray about it.

MARSHALL: So I did. And my prayer was like, aah, Lord, you know I hate track. And like before I could get all of that out of my mouth, it was like, this is a gift, just that's what I heard inside of me. This is a gift. And I was like, ah, I can't just throw that away.

SHAW: Marshall makes running and jumping look easy. For the Olympics, she's also training for the hurdles. But the long jump has always been her number one event.

MARSHALL: I can go down the runway, stop midway if I wanted to and come back because I have a whole minute to do what I wanted to do. So that was a relaxing situation for me. As opposed to the hurdles, where when the gun goes off, you have to run and, you know, you can't wait and say: Wait, I'm not ready, I'm not ready.

SHAW: Marshall says the secret to a good long jump is all in the setup. As she runs to the launching board, Marshall listens to her footsteps to make sure she has the right rhythm. It starts off slowly but still with power.

MARSHALL: Then I move into an area where it's getting sharper and it's getting faster. And then I get into the last part of my rhythm that's quick, it's precise, clean. It's like a clap, like...

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAP)

MARSHALL: ...and then you're in the air, just floating.

SHAW: This year, Marshall hopes to jump past 23 feet and to make it to the Olympics, of course. She says if it doesn't happen, she probably won't try again. No matter how it turns out, when the track season is over, Marshall will start focusing on her true passion: music. It's what she went to college for.

MARSHALL: My body is not going to be able to do this forever as far as track and field goes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARSHALL: But I'll be able to sing for many years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARSHALL: (Singing) Keeping you further with my arm, shining the light you put in us. Living as you called us to be, follow you...

SHAW: Marshall is almost ready to start recording the dozens of songs she's written. But first, she has to see just how far she can go with this other gift she was given. She'll find out at the Olympic trials at Hayward Field, Eugene, Oregon, June 29th. For NPR News, I'm Yowei Shaw.

MARSHALL: (Singing) Even though it's been a long day, even though it's been a fun one, even though it's been a busy one, I can say you're with me.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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