Triple jumper Thea LaFond from Dominica (© Getty Images)
Sometimes in athletics you need to experience the pain before the pleasure and for triple jumper Thea LaFond – the former arrived like a juggernaut at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Representing the tiny Caribbean island of Dominica and making her Olympic debut, LaFond was not expected to threaten the podium but a hamstring problem picked up just days before qualification seriously derailed her prospects.
Struggling for confidence in the biggest competition of her life, LaFond placed 37th and last with a modest best of 12.82m – the best part of a metre down on her PB at the time.
“Rio was one of my least favourite memories of my track career,” explains the naturally vivacious LaFond. “The worst part was I was in a lot of pain and didn’t feel capable (of producing my best). It was rough. I had a few nights of tears that that feeling forced me to make some drastic changes.”
Within a few months of her return to her base in Maryland, USA, she hooked up with new coach Aaron Gadson, in what has proved a career-altering move.
Some four years on from her Rio pain, LaFond is an athlete transformed. In 2018 she won her country’s first ever Commonwealth medal in Gold Coast and earlier this year secured an Olympic qualification mark during the indoor season with a national record 14.33m – a mark which elevated her to joint-fifth on the world indoor lists of the abbreviated 2020 campaign. The best of the journey for the rapidly developing LaFond, you sense, is only just beginning.
Born in Roseau, the capital of Dominica, her family re-located for a new life in the US when LaFond was six – initially settling in New Jersey before later moving to Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington DC.
Inspired to start athletics after watching Usain Bolt’s stunning gold medal-winning successes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she took up the sport as a high school freshman and gravitated towards the speed and power events.
“By the time of my second year at school I’d developed into competing in the high jump, long jump, triple jump and hurdles,” she explains. “I have some bumps and bruises along the way, shin splints, some scraped arms and knees but by the end of my second year I started to make some headlines as a jack-of-all-trades within the team.”
Aged 16 she was approached by Jamaican strength and conditioning coach Chris Paul, where he suggested she should consider representing Dominica internationally. After some thought, LaFond warmed to the idea and committed to competing for the Caribbean nation.
“At the time I had no clue what he was talking about, but he said it would be good exposure,” she explains. “But after thinking about it, I made the call to represent Dominica.”
The next year at the 2011 World U18 Championships in France, LaFond made her international debut but overwhelmed by the experience, she finished well short of her PB in both the high jump (30th) and triple jump (25th).
On her return to the US she took up a place at the University of Maryland and 12 months later qualified for the World U20 Championships in Barcelona, where she fared slightly better to place 19th in the triple jump.
She enjoyed a versatile and rich NCAA career. Competing as a triple jumper, long jumper, hurdler, high jumper and multi-eventer she snared conference titles and a number of top ten NCAA Championship finishes, highlighted by a high jump fifth place at the indoor championships in 2015. Graduating later that year she was torn on whether to focus on triple jump or multi-events but a conversation with 1992 Olympic 110m hurdles bronze medallist Jack Pierce proved pivotal.
“I had a good heart-to-heart with Jack and his wife and they convinced me that multi-events were not for me and that I should focus on the triple jump,” she recalls.
Struggling with the throws and “despising” the 800m, this was the logical decision and in 2016 – ahead of her Rio heartache - she leapt to national indoor (13.61m) and outdoor (13.41m) triple jump records.
Yet on her return home from Rio she implemented what she believed to be the necessary changes by joining the coaching group of Aaron Gadson, who also operated out of Silver Spring. Gadson had guided triple jumper Mohamed Halim of the US Virgin Islands to the 2016 Rio Olympics, so after “stalking” Halim on Facebook, LaFond managed to set up a meeting with Gadson and within 24 hours they had begun their coaching journey.
“Given that he lived in my home town it was crazy to think I’d not thought of it sooner,” she explains.
It was all change under Gadson’s guidance and he quickly instilled in LaFond a sense of independent-thought, which has allowed her to flourish.
“He has given an ability to critique myself before he critiques me and he has also made me a student of the sport, she explains.
“Prior to that, I don’t think I understood the sport very well. But since then I’ve gained a crazy amount of intel from the sport. YouTube has become my best friend, where I’ve looked back on jumps and interviews from around 1987 to the present.”
Citing the like of men’s triple jump world record-holder Jonathan Edwards and reigning world and Olympic triple jump champion Christian Taylor as two of her all-time favourites, the impact under Gadson’s regime has been clear.
In 2017 – their first season together – she set two national records highlighted by a 14.20m leap at the Penn Relays, a moment she says “made all the previous pain, doubts and tears worth it.”
However, her progress later that year was stalled by a severe bout of anaemia, and struggling with the condition she could only finish 19th in qualifying with a best of 13.82m at the World Championships in London.
Returning to training and continuing to working as a special needs teacher she continued to successfully juggle the demands of both and made history in 2018 by becoming the first athlete from Dominica to win a Commonwealth Games medal.
Knowing she was “in a battle” for a podium spot – a third round leap of 13.92m earned her a memorable bronze medal in Gold Coast behind the Jamaican duo Kimberly Williams and Shanieka Ricketts.
It proved a huge moment not just for LaFond’s but the Caribbean Island, which has a population of around 70,000 people.
“It was an amazing end to an amazing trip,” she explains. “Running across the track to pick up the Dominica flag from my team-mates was very special. To make it a 1-2-3 for the Caribbean behind two good friends was such a fond memory.”
Last year the improvements continued as she soared out to a national record of 14.38m at the Florida Relays in April. Enjoying some of the best practises of her career she was hoping to make a mark at the World Athletics Championships in Doha but suffered the cruellest of blows when just three days before qualification she sustained a tear on her left quad and was forced to withdraw.
“There was a lot of tears,” she said. “I had been experiencing a pain in the few weeks leading up but had no idea of the severity of the injury. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way, although I was so thankful Tori Franklin (the US triple jump record-holder) took my mind off the disappointment by going camel riding.”
Given the all-clear to train at full speed again from mid-December, she bounced back in style leap to an indoor national record – and Olympic qualification mark of 14.33m in Staten Island in February and was all set for a tilt at the World Athletics Indoor Championships until Covid-19 struck and she was forced to reassess.
Adopting a typically positive attitude to the changing circumstances, Lafond opted to focus on body circuits and power and she believes she is reaping the rewards.
“I believe I’m faster than at any stage in my career and over 10 metres, 20 metres and 30 metres I’m consistently dropping my times every few weeks,” she insists.
LaFond has also created a lift station in her basement and while she can return to the gym in Maryland she has chosen not to.
“While our Covid numbers are not terrible in Maryland, I’m still very apprehensive about returning to the gym,” she explains. “I’m all about maintaining a healthy body and healthy mind and fine-tuning at home. For the safety or our families I don’t want to put anyone at risk. It is about moving as a responsible world citizen.”
Initially extremely “hurt” – given her excellent early season form - at the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics she gave herself 48 hours to adjust and has since adopted the mindset of “100 per cent” making herself the best athlete she can be – within the existing health and safety guidelines.
Looking ahead with optimism to the challenge of Tokyo next year, LaFond could be an outside bet to create history and won Dominica’s first Olympic medal in any sport. It would be some story.
“Winning a medal would be an amazing way to put my country on the map,” she says. “I want to make the island proud. It would be my way of giving them a gift.”
Steve Landells for World Athletics