Will Claye reacts after winning silver at the Rio Olympics (© Getty Images)
by Will Claye
The call came on a Monday, news I hoped I would never have to hear: my Grandma had passed away.
I remember how I felt all that week: tired and drained, physically and emotionally. She was all I could think about even if, deep down, I knew at some stage life had to move on, that I had to go back to being a professional athlete.
I got out to do some training, but my heart wasn’t in it and, even though I had a competition lined up that week, I called my Mom and told her: “I don’t want to compete.”
But she wasn’t having that: “Your Grandma would want you to go out there.”
Not long before she passed away, my Grandma had left me a voicemail that I still have saved, talking about how she expects me to go and win the gold medal in Tokyo and that’s always been her thing: that I’ll win the Olympics.
In the end, I decided to compete that weekend – this small meet in Long Beach, California. Even though my training had been going well, my expectations were low. I surprised myself in the long jump with 8.21m, then I had about an hour before the triple jump.
Queen, my wife, came up asked if I was going to do the triple. “I gotta go to Europe next week,” I told her. “So maybe not.”
But after sitting around for a while I thought, well, why not? What’s the worst that can happen?
When I got on that runway, it all came together. I jumped 18.14m, a huge personal best and the fourth biggest jump in history. The best part about it was that I wasn’t chasing any mark. I just let it happen – and it did.
I felt something in that meet, this strange feeling – a sense, without any doubt, that my Grandma was looking down on me.
Her name was Martha Tunis, and she was the matriarch of our family, the cornerstone of everything on my mother’s side.
Born and raised in Sierra Leone, she lived there during the civil war, striving with everything she had to protect her family and her home. After the civil war she moved to London and later to Phoenix, Arizona, which is where I grew up.
In recent years she told my family she wanted to go back to Sierra Leone. I think she felt herself slowing down and wanted to go back to where she was brought up, to come full circle after 88 years that were filled with so much life.
She was one of the strongest women I’ve ever known. She fought for what was hers – her rights – and she never let anyone take those away. She was one of the most loving, smiling people you could ever meet, and she was always teaching.
Every time I spoke with her, she taught me so much about my family’s history, where we come from in Sierra Leone. I’ve never been to Africa, so conversations with her were what taught me so much about my heritage.
Both my parents are from Sierra Leone. My mom moved to the US in 1988, studying at the University of Arizona where she got a doctorate in nutrition. She and my father were in college when they had me.
Having strong people around you is essential if you’re going to go far, and in that sense I’ve always been lucky. Last year I married Queen, who in many ways reminds me of my grandmother.
She’s such a strong woman. Being an elite athlete, she understands everything I go through and she finds the time to take care of herself and me. Having a companion like that to wake up to every day is life-changing, and I’ve learned so much from her: my diet has been so much better since I met her and that’s showing in my performances.
This year, I’ve trained like never before.
I started in January and, seven months on, I’m only really starting to get into speed work. In other years I was focused so much more on other things like music but this year, it's tunnel vision.
It’s not that I’m in the best shape of my life so much as the best space of my life. I know many more big jumps are coming.
At the same time, to do that you have to almost forget the big jumps of the past. You have to stay hungry and humble, so I try to develop amnesia about the actual mark. Being honest, I fouled three or four bigger jumps that day I jumped 18.14m so for me it’s not so much about the mark, it’s the execution. I try to remember how it felt: the mechanics and the technical aspects of what I did to jump that far.
In this sport, past results can only ever be a stepping stone. My main goal is to win World Championship gold in Doha, and Olympic gold in Tokyo.
I’m still in search of the perfect jump, and I have an idea how it will feel when it arrives: effortless. I’m going to land and it’s going to feel like I was flying, like I barely ever touched the ground. As Muhammad Ali said: float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
When my coach watched the video of that jump in Long Beach, he saw a lot of things I did technically wrong so there’s a lot to work on. I’m faster and stronger than I've ever been and I was able to use my speed and strength to get me out of those technical pitfalls. Now it’s about working on the little things, just adding a few centimetres to each phase.
If I can do that, maybe I can achieve that goal my Grandma always set for me. Knowing she wanted me to win Olympic gold is all the motivation I need to get up each day and do everything I can to make it happen.
No matter what comes, I know she’ll be with me, forever in my heart.