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.