April 27, 2013
By Jon Cooper
Elite would be a good description of a team that wins an event five times in seven years.
Or, wins that event on both the men’s and women’s side at the same championship.
Or, wins said event at both the indoor and outdoor championships.
Elite might thus be used to describe Georgia Tech in the triple jump, who have done all of the above.
Jhanelle McLeod and Jonathan Gardner brought home the “triple-double” at this year’s ACC Outdoors. Gardner took the Indoor title, and James Lemons and Alphonso Jordan, twice took home gold preceding Gardner outdoors.
But there’s another person deserving of a tip of the cap for this success. That’s assistant coach Nat Page.
Page has created elite jumpers basically by following the world’s elites and helping Tech’s jumpers evolve with the sport.
“I’m just constantly learning and paying particular attention to what the elite athletes do so I can get that ingrained into these up-and-coming jumpers,” said Page, who has been coaching on the Flats for 17 years. “If there are things that the elite or Olympians do, that’s what we’re working towards and I make sure I pay particular attention to it.”
“We have to make sure they’re technically sound in all three phases,” he said. “You’ve got to break each phase down. You have to make sure that once you are applying forces to the ground that it’s done right and then, being physically strong enough to make sure you can handle all the forces that are required to get you back off the ground. Trying to make sure those things are right in those three areas.
“To appreciate all those, to understand what you’re doing and the knowledge of the event. So I do as much teaching as I do coaching. Probably more teaching than coaching.”
Page’s teachings have been an invaluable factor in the Jackets’ success over the years, according to Gardner.
“I see one common factor and that’s Coach Page,” said Gardner, who won at ACC Outdoors with a jump of 15.49 meters. “He’s one of the best triple jump coaches in the world, if not the best. Day in and day out, he just makes sure that we have everything right, our angles are right, our technique is right, our speed is right. Then, at the end of the day, he says, ‘Jump as far as you can.’ He makes it so the technique is second-nature. So when it comes to actual race day, we can really focus on just putting out as much energy as we can, as much effort into our jumps.”
Page has also fostered an atmosphere where the entire unit of jumpers considers itself more family than teammates. Gardner said that chemistry with Lemons and Jordan as an underclassman for a big part of his development and grasping Page’s teachings.
“It’s like you had two brothers in the household,” said Gardner. “Your father teaches you how to do something and you don’t quite get it but as soon as the big brother comes in and says, ‘Let me break it down this way, in a way that you can understand.’ So when Coach Page said something and I had kind of a confused look on my face, Coach Page doesn’t see it. They see it. They say, ‘I’m going to help you out. I’ve been through the same thing. This is what you need to do to fix it.'”
While Gardner’s ACC supremacy has come since “big brothers” Lemons (Class of ’08) and Jordan (Class of ’10) have graduated, McLeod has forged a similar relationship with Julienne McKee, who won the long jump at last year’s Penn Relays. The difference is that McLeod plays the older sibling.
“Julienne is like my little sister,” said McLeod, whose leap of 13.02 meters made her only the third Yellow Jacket woman to win the triple jump at ACCs and the first since Mishanta Reyes, in 2002. “We talk to each other about practice. We both have different areas of weaknesses. So it’s like we feed off of each other and we try to help each other out. We know that we’re in competition and even though we’re trying to beat each other out, at the same time, we’re always there to push each other and help each other out.
“We motivate each other,” she added. “I know for me, being older, I have to set the example like when it comes to practice and warming up and in the weight room and pushing her to be the best athlete that she can be because she is so talented. She has so much potential it’s ridiculous. She’s such a great jumper. So just letting her see that she can go way beyond what she’s doing, the level we do at practice and in the weight room and she definitely inspires me.”
Page feels that in the last year, both Gardner and McLeod have made the quantum leap to champion in different ways. Gardner by better grasping and tweaking his technique, McLeod by getting stronger. He said that difference in strength is about the only difference between teaching men and women, as they are taught to master the same techniques to jump.
Both McLeod and Gardner also had to overcome injuries, coincidentally both tearing their left hamstring — McLeod missing outdoors in 2011, Gardner is still competing on a bad wheel, suffering the injury on his championship-winning jump in the Indoors — but were rewarded with their finishes in 2013.
While McLeod graduates, Gardner still has his senior year to play big brother for the next generation of great jumpers. That group represented this weekend at the Penn Relays, as freshman Myles McDavid took home second place. (Gardner didn’t compete as he was in Chicago, serving as best man at his brother’s wedding).
Of course, Page also will be there and will be keeping up with the elite, no let-up allowed — not even after the success at ACCs. After all, NCAAs are coming at the end of May.
“He’s still working us hard, even right after ACCs. So it’s kind of back on the ground,” Gardner said, with a laugh. “Let’s not just feel this win and get fat and be happy with what we’ve done so far. Put everything in place so we can add some more accolades and more success to what we already have.”