Cuba has a rich tradition in horizontal jumps and Maykel Masso looks poised to become the latest long jump star from the Caribbean island nation.
Earlier this year, three weeks after turning 17, Masso jumped a world U18 best of 8.28m at the Barrientos Memorial meeting in Havana, which also earned him qualification for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
“Before I set foot on the track, I knew I was ready to jump big," said the reigning world U18 champion. "My coach asked me to do three jumps so I focused on the first one. When I landed in the pit, I thought it was about 7.90-8.00m, but never imagined it would be this long."
That leap also propelled him to equal third on the world U20 all-time list, alongside his compatriot Luis Alberto Bueno, whose world U18 best he broke.
With two more seasons in the U20 category after this year, Masso is now eyeing the world U20 record of 8.35m set by Russia’s Sergey Morgunov in 2012.
“I'm excited to be able to compete in Rio, but my main focus remains the world U20 championships," he said. "I loved the experience (at last year's IAAF World U18 Championships) in Cali and I would like to add another world title to my career and to Cuban athletics.”
Despite his significant improvement, Masso remains well-grounded. “My coach is not rushing me. It's just a natural progress. The training programme is similar for all members of the training group."
Honing his early talent
The youngest of three siblings, Masso was born in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba. His father Demetrio ran 400m as a junior athlete (he set a personal best of 48.8 when he was 17), while his uncle practised gymnastics.
Basketball, not athletics, was Masso's first sport and he played it throughout elementary school.
“I was always running with friends in my neighbourhood. My father tested my speed over 30 metres. I ran 4.80 and he enrolled me in the EIDE Capitan Orestes Acosta sports school."
In his first full season in athletics, he competed in combined events, which at that stage comprised of 60m, 50m hurdles, long jump, shot put and 1000m in the 10-11 age group. A year later, he changed to another group of events that included the high jump instead of the 1000m.
“The first time I tried the long jump, I managed 3.80m and improved to 4.20m weeks later,” he recalls.
Masso did not qualify for the Cuban School Games in 2011, but showed progress the following year in combined events. In 2013, he took the long jump gold and high jump silver.
His preference was for the high jump, but his lack of height soon began to count against him and he decided to specialise in the long jump.
In 2012, he produced the best national mark that year for his age group (5.91m) and then improved to 6.41m in 2013. Still living in Santiago de Cuba under the guidance of coach Claro Reyes, he improved to 6.83m and leapt a massive 7.59m with a 30-metre run-up on his international debut in the Dominican Republic.
Those performances opened the doors to the national U20 team in Havana, and he is now in his second year in the physical education program at the EPEF school. under the supervision of coach Juan Guaberto Napoles and training alongside Pan American junior long jump champion Juan Echevarria, triple jump specialist Cristian Napoles, Maikel Vidal, his girfriend Alismaidy Tamayo and Disnellys Thaureaux.
It was a step up in training volume, but his hard work soon paid off.
Eclipsing eight metres
In his second competition of 2015, he produced the longest jump ever by a 15-year-old with 7.85m. One day after turning 16, Masso joined the eight-metre club with 8.12m.
“I wanted to give myself a good present for my birthday," he recalled. "It was a big surprise.”
That leap ranked him on top of the world U18 lists leading up to the IAAF World Youth Championships Cali 2015. In the end, the young Cuban prevailed in a battle with Australia’s Darcy Roper, who was second with 8.01m, thanks to his fourth-round effort of 8.05m.
For the first time in the history of the IAAF World U18 Championships, two boys surpassed the eight-metre barrier.
“They did not play the national anthem, but it was great to give the victory to Cuba. It gave me the confidence to dream of becoming a senior world champion one day, the best in Cuba and the world.”
His season would not end there.
With two jumps beyond eight metres, Masso earned a spot on the Cuban team for the IAAF World Championships in Beijing. He only managed 7.70m in qualification, but he didn't it allow that to diminish the experience.
"It was a great experience in Beijing, competing in front of the large crowd that came out to support the Chinese jumpers," he said. "I was the first athlete to jump in group A and the nerves got the better of me."
Late start but long jumps
With a late start to training following a long 2015 season, it took him a while to regain his top form in 2016, but he jumped 7.85m in May, one week before his breakthrough performance at the Barrientos Memorial.
As he continues to progress, Masso has found encouraging words and tips from Luis Alberto Bueno, Cuba’s only male world U20 long jump champion, back in 1988, and now a coach for paralympic athletes.
He is often called the next Pedroso, referring to his compatriot Ivan Pedroso, four-time world outdoor champion and the 2000 Olympic champion.
“We met once briefly when I was new in the national junior team. I would love to connect with him and get his advice. I will find him on Facebook. He was famous for his two-and-a-half hitch-kicks. I only managed to do it once at the Barrientos Memorial. My coach will help me prepare to do two and a half next year.”
Due to his sporting commitments, Masso is unable to visit his hometown as often as he would like, so he was motivated when his parents came to see him compete at the national championships in March and then at the Barrientos Memorial.
“They are obviously very happy and remind me to continue working hard for my dreams,” he says. “I am aware of my talent and my strong points such as speed, the take-off and my bouncing ability. I just focused on my training and the results will follow.”
When he steps on to the runway at the IAAF World U20 Championships Bydgoszcz 2016, the fans in the Polish city will have good reason to expect something special from Masso.
“I am fortunate enough to compete at the highest level in the long jump at 17," he added. "I am sure Poland and Rio will be two great boosts for my career. I want to enjoy the moment."
Javier Clavelo Robinson for the IAAF