|Instructor Dwight Phillips watches Katie Hensley of |
Mount Vernon work on her form during a jumping
drill at Centre College. (Hal Morrisemail@example.com)
It took Dwight Phillips a little longer than he planed to get it to Centre College, but it took him very little time to feel right at home there.
Three years after he was scheduled to teach at the very first Maximum Velocity Track and Field Academy, Phillips finally made it to Danville this week for the fourth edition of the camp.
Now retired from competition after a 14-year career at the international level in which he won an Olympic gold medal and four world championships, Phillips was one of eight Olympians among the group of camp clinicians.
A competition conflict forced him to cancel his trip to Centre in 2011, but he said he had heard good things about the Centre camp from Sharrieffa Barksdale, who helps organize the athletes who come to teach each year for camp director/Centre track coach Lisa Owens, and from some of the athletes who have served on the staff in its first three years.
“I’m so happy I’m able to get here,” Phillips said Thursday. “Miss Sharrieffa has been telling me it’s been such a great experience, and working with the kids has been fun. The kids are very receptive to our skills and the techniques I’m sharing with them, and I can see improvement already.”
Phillips is no stranger to teaching. He coaches a handful of athletes in the Atlanta area and has partnered with Hazel Clark-Riley, another Olympian on this year’s Maximum Velocity staff, in Future Olympian Sports Clinics, an organization founded and run by Olympians who share their stories and skills in hopes of inspiring the the next generation of Olympic track and field athletes.
“This is a part of me. This is what I do,” he said.
Phillips had his own inspirations when he was a high school athlete.
“I can just remember when I was at this level watching a Carl Lewis or Kevin Young. I remember watching them winning gold medals, setting world records, and it wasn’t really even within my realm to think that I could achieve that,” he said. “I just really admired that they worked hard and they were having so much fun doing it. I was like, ‘Wow, I wish I could feel that same type of feeling,’ and many years later I was able to achieve that.
“It took me many, many years to be considered in the same sentence with Mike Powell or Carl Lewis or Ralph Boston or Bob Beamon. I was like, ‘No, those are the jump gods, the track gods.’ And now this generation, they look at me much how I looked at those guys. It’s humbling, and at the same time I feel good about it.”
The road to that success began at Kentucky, where the Decatur, Ga., native competed for the Wildcats in 1997-98 before transferring to Arizona State.
It was in Lexington that Phillips met Edrick Floreal, who was an assistant coach at the time and who returned as the Wildcats’ head coach in 2012. And it was Floreal who told Phillips that his athletic future would not be in sprinting, but in jumping.
“When I was at UK, I was primarily a 400-meter runner. But the second day on campus coach Floreal told me, ‘Dwight, if you focus on the jumps, you could probably go to the Olympics.’ He had never seen me jump, but he just watched me move. And I thought to myself, ‘This guy’s crazy.’ I told him, ‘Coach, I understand that, but I’m not a jumper, I’m a quarterhorse.’ He told me that ... and I just continued to run the 400. I was a very mediocre 400-meter runner.”
He followed his sprints coach at Kentucky, Darryl Anderson, to Arizona State, but it was there that his days as a 400 runner came to a sudden end.
“When I showed up on campus, they told me that I was going to be a jumper, and I told them I was under the impression I was going to be running the 400. And they told me, ‘Well, you can either take the scholarship or you can go home.’
“The moral of the story is coach Floreal saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. And that’s what I like to tell the athletes: Sometimes you have to acknowledge that people see things you don’t see in yourself. Just pay attention, and it can change your life.”
Phillips, who had tried the triple jump in addition to the 400 at Kentucky, finished eighth in the long jump at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and at the 2001 World Championships. He won indoor and outdoor world championships in 2003, then won Olympic gold in 2004 in Athens, winning the competition by just 12 centimeters despite a leap of 8.59 meters that was the fourth best jump in Olympic history.
Floreal, who was in Athens as coach of another athlete, was by Phillips’ side as he went for gold, walking with him in a mostly silent lap around the track to prepare him for his jumps.
“He told me, ‘It’s yours. Go claim it,’” Phillips said. “It gave me chills when he told me that, because we had walked the entire lap and didn’t speak much, but I knew that he really cared and was by my side, and it meant a lot to me.”
Phillips went on to win a total of four world outdoor championships — he is the only long jumper ever to do so — and his personal-best jump of 8.74 meters in 2009 leaves him tied as the fifth best jumper of all time. However, he missed the 2008 Olympics after finishing fourth in the U.S. trials, an injury kept him out of the 2012 games and he retired after the 2013 World Championships.
“I started in the sport when I was 8 years old, just because I had an affinity for running. And to all of a sudden have to call it quits, it was very difficult because it had become a part of who I am. It didn’t define who I am, but it was a part of me, and to let that go just at the snap of a finger is life-changing. And I didn’t want to do it, but I think I had a great run, I had some great experiences, I met some great people, and I became a better person as a result of being able to travel the world and getting different perspectives of life. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, track and field.”
Phillips said his message to the athletes who gathered at Centre is that track and field can do wonders for them as well, even if they never reach the sport’s highest levels.
“The main message I try to get across is you may not become an Olympic champion, you might not become a U.S. champion, you might not become a gold medalist, but I think the work ethic in track and field teaches you to become a gold medalist in life,” he said. “It’s about being opportunistic, believing in yourself, having a strong work ethic and not allowing negativity in your world.”