May 11, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - It's hard to imagine an athlete having a more satisfying -- then crushing -- four days than the ones Jeremy Taiwo just had.
He doesn't even want to consider anyone else going through this. He's a Pac-10 champion and an NCAA finalist - but one who is competing with just one fully functioning arm and is now facing the longest year of his life.
"I'm hoping I'm the only guy," the Huskies' first Pac-10-champion decathlete in a quarter century told me Tuesday while standing in UW's Dempsey Indoor practice facility.
"I do not wish this on anybody."
Last weekend at the conference championships in Tucson, Ariz., the starring yet star-crossed junior from Newport High School in Renton, Wash., set personal bests in five events and stormed to Washington's first Pac-10 decathlon title since Mike Ramos did it in 1986. His career-best score of 7,742 points was almost 200 points better than second-place finisher David Klech of Oregon. It is the sixth-best decathlon score in the U.S. this year.
None of those other five did what Taiwo did. He had to throw the javelin with his off, left hand on Saturday.
"I don't know of any other times I've ever seen that," Pat Licari, UW's assistant coach for multi-event athletes, told me.
Licari has been coaching collegiately for 20 years.
If Taiwo had both arms working he likely would have eclipsed 8,000 points. That's the threshold past which decathletes often become members of the U.S. national track and field team and then Olympians.
"It would have been awesome, if I hadn't been injured in my right arm trying to get over that 8,000-point barrier," the most talented yet unlucky athlete I've met at UW said. "But, I mean, I'm hoping everything happens for a reason.
"I will just have to do that when I am healthy again."
That's going to be a while.
Taiwo came home from Tucson and got an MRI exam Monday to pinpoint the reason for the searing pain his elbow. Tuesday afternoon, a team doctor sat him down inside the UW Sports Medicine Clinic to go over the results: He has a torn ulnar collateral ligament.
Days after the best weekend of his life - personal bests in winning the high jump (6-11) and 400 meters (48.49), finishing second in the 100 meters (10.98), long jump (23-11 1/2), 110-meter hurdles (14.41) and 1,500-meter run (4:18.69), plus third place in the pole vault (15-9 3/4) and shot put (42-11) - Taiwo is facing ligament replacement surgery. Then six to nine months of rehabilitation after that.
"Tommy John surgery," named for the first such successful procedure in 1974 on a former major league pitcher, are the last words an aspiring Olympian at the top of his game wants to hear two years before the next Summer Games.
"I've got an unlucky trail following me around," he said, ruefully.
I met him at Dempsey Indoor minutes after he got the most devastating news of his athletic career. What kind of person is he? Even though he was still trying to process the diagnosis, the doubt and the daunting days ahead, I saw him running from the clinic. He was concerned he was late for an interview with a guy he'd never met.
Yet he couldn't run from the disappointment and frustration. That filled his voice and was etched on his face.
"I mean, whatever. No matter what life throws at me, I'm just going to try to get over it," he told me, standing on the artificial turf inside Dempsey while holding plastic, red and yellow practice javelins in each hand. "That was just me this past weekend. If I am going to have a torn elbow, I'm just going to throw with my other arm - and win."
Yet this isn't even the first core-shaking injury Taiwo has had while at the top level of his sport.
This son of a former two-time Olympian triple jumper for Nigeria was a triple-jump and high-jump state champion as a sophomore at Newport High School in the Seattle suburbs. Then he missed all of his of junior year there because of foot injury.
He was an All-American in the indoor season as a UW freshman, and placed third at the outdoor Pac-10 championships in his first-ever college decathlon. That qualified him for the 2009 NCAA championships, but he missed those because of an odd ankle injury. His talus bones grew too large and were causing painful impingements each time he jumped.
Last spring he qualified for another NCAA championships. Taiwo was coming off a powerful first day in the decathlon and was poised to place, if not win the competition.
"Yeah, I was rollin'," he said.
But he had tweaked his hamstring in hurdles practice that week, after a pubic bone inflammation had limited his training. Before the 110-meter race of the decathlon Taiwo had a premonition something awful was going to happen.
It did. His foot caught the eighth hurdle, flipping him heels over head. He landed face-first onto the track and was out cold for a full minute. He eventually rolled over and lay there for 10 more minutes with a concussion that ended his title quest and left him idling for much of last summer.
"I have a pretty good `Spidey' sense," he said, briefly going dark-humor, Marvel Comics on me. "I got in the blocks and I just knew, `This is probably not going to be good.' But I just went after it.
"I've been hit in the head by windmills. Been bitten by things. Fallen off stuff. But I've never been knocked out in my life. I'd never had anything like that happen to me. It was a REALLY strange experience."
"I MIGHT AS WELL"
He first injured the elbow last month trying to throw the javelin lower and farther in his final attempt at a decathlon competition at California's Azusa Pacific University. The elbow was still hurting before Taiwo tried to warm up for the ninth of his 10 events Saturday at the Pac-10s. The pain was so fierce, he decided to revert to what he'd messed around with last summer inside Dempsey.
He chucked the spear with his left hand.
"The idea came from me just knowing I had to do what I had to do to score," he said. "I mean, I might as well. It's better than no points in the event."
Still, doing that for the first time in any competition, especially while trying to win the conference championships?
"Yeah, it's pretty unheard of," he said.
He thrown went 107 feet, nine inches. It was 70 feet shorter than the throw of UCLA's Trent Perez that won the event, but so what? Taiwo secured 300 points instead of none.
Boosted by his perseverance, he zoomed through the desert's 100-degree heat and finished the final event, the 1,500 meters, just off his personal best in 4:18. That clinched the Pac-10 title in decathlon UW had been waiting on for 25 years.
"I guess I got the job done," he deadpanned.
He is powerfully built, yet sleek, like a go-to wide receiver in football or point-forward in basketball - the latter of which, he played at Newport High in Renton and made honorable mention all-league. He won the state championship in the decathlon at the 2008 Washington Multi-Event Championships for Newport, despite scoring zero points in a disastrous pole vault session. Yes, Taiwo was so dominant as a teenager, his nine scores were easily more than everyone else's 10.
"It just really pisses me off that I always have things happen," he said. "I try so hard. I do everything right, outside the track, in the school. I try to be a good person. I just feel like, I don't know where all this karma is coming from, you know?"
He isn't the only Husky national track finalist to have his career derailed. He and track strength coach Audra Smith co-designed the wrist bands of support UW athletes and students are wearing to support Jeff Gudaitis in the sprinter's fight with thyroid cancer, a battle I have described in previous columns.
Smith and Taiwo asked Gudaitis what inspired him immediately before he raced, then had the words "Let's roll" and "Washington" printed on the black-and-purple bands. The track team has been selling them to help with some of Gudaitis' six-figure medical costs.
Taiwo was wearing the rubber bracelet during his historic decathlon last weekend.
"I've learned a lot just from what happens in life. Life is what happens when you least expect it," Taiwo said. "Just listening to Jeff and knowing stuff will happen. And it's not what will happen later. It's how you deal in the moment, right now.
"He's doing the best he can. We are trying to help him out. Now, I am realizing I am going to be in the same situation, trying to recover from something that ... just happens."
Taiwo left Wednesday with his teammates to go back to Tucson for the rest of the Pac-10 championships. He will compete in the long jump, high jump, 110-meter hurdles, pole vault - he says the arm only hurts with the action or hurling a javelin -- and the 4x400-meter relay.
Something tells me he's going to get more team points for his Huskies down there than the 10 he's already spotted UW with his decathlon win.
Then he will compete in the NCAA championships June 8-11 in Des Moines, Iowa, still with the lone, good arm.
"My brother is ambidextrous," he said of his younger sibling who is a football player at Newport High headed to play that sport at Central Washington. "God, if I could only have what he has. All he has to do is tackle people for football."
Yet it's not as if Taiwo has nothing going for him beyond the track.
He graduated with a 3.8 grade-point average from Newport High School and is now Latin American studies major at UW with a minor in global health. Upon graduation he wants to begin non-profit organization work in foreign countries. In high school he found working with peer educators on sexual health and diversity to be rewarding and challenging.
"I figure it would be cool to work for a non-profit or even own one, and teach about health and about prevention," he says. "That's just a basic need, because I feel like we could reduce a lot of the pharmaceutical expenditure that's going on in the world."
He also speaks Spanish. His mother Irene Botero, who holds a UW law degree and works in Seattle for the National Labor Relations Board, is half Colombian and put her son in a language-immersion grade school in Bellevue, Sunset Elementary.
His father is perhaps the most accomplished help-desk analyst Nordstrom's downtown Seattle flagship store has ever had. Joseph Taiwo was a two-time Olympian for Nigeria. He won the 1984 African Games in the triple jump, and went on to place ninth in that event at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and in the 1998 Games in Seoul.
Both Mom and Dad were in Tucson last weekend watching their son make UW track history with one good arm. They will be there again this weekend.
He says his decathlon score from last week has qualified him to compete in the USA track and field championships in Eugene, Ore., June 23-25. He is weighing whether to wait to have the surgery so he can compete and get valuable national exposure there - albeit while injured -- or to have the surgery now and be back sooner for his senior season at Washington.
He's leaning toward getting the national exposure, having fun, then returning full bore for next spring's senior track season at UW.
The way Taiwo sees it, his scores - not karma or luck -- are what will eventually get him a try out for the national team and a chance for the 2012 Olympic trials.
"It just comes down to the ability for me to be at the meet while I am healthy and not have something bad happen. That's where I am going to get national recognition," he said.
"It's cool that I can win throwing with my left hand, but if I am not scoring over 8,000 like all the big scorers, it's like `OK, cool. I won the Pac-10s, but ...' I mean, long-term (it's) `Is he healthy enough to score big, like he should?'
"That's what I am trying to just figure out."
I wish him all the world's luck in that. After all, he deserves a good break by now.
"Snake bit, I guess that's a little saying that goes on, eh?" he said, shrugging. "Yeah, I kind of feel like that. I kind of feel like I am a very unlucky and accident-prone person. But I'm really hoping that I will still be able to do what I always wanted to do growing up in my life, which is go to the Olympics.
"I'm just hoping that everything is happening for a reason."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.