'The Beast' is hunting Olympic gold
They call her The Beast.
Long jumper Brittney Reese is the most dominant American female track and field athlete since the Beijing Olympics, winning three straight world championships and back-to-back Diamond League series titles. She's been the best on given days and the most consistent over a calendar of meets. No doubt, she is an overwhelming favorite for gold at the London Games.
So the nickname is justified, but Reese's story isn't perfect -- throw in soda, socks and some sorrow in addition to all the medals.
Growing up, the tree-climbing, video-gaming tomboy's scary jumping talent first surfaced in an 11th-grade challenge at Gulfport (Miss.) High School.
"Everybody knows the story about the Coke drink," said Carla Young, Reese's mom.
The school's track and field coach needed to find a long jumper, so he took the girls basketball team outside, including Reese. Whoever leapt the farthest would win a Coke and a spot on the track team.
Reese, who averaged a double-double and was on the small-college radar to play hoops, would be held out because she was already on the track team as a blossoming 400-meter runner. But as her teammates took their turns, Reese begged and begged to jump. The coach relented.
"Of course I won the Coke," Reese said.
The next year, Reese swept the long jump, triple jump and high jump at the Mississippi high school state meet. She anchored 400-, 800- and 1,600-meter relay teams. She won the state's Gatorade Player of the Year and a track scholarship to Ole Miss.
There was just one problem. Reese was one English class shy of academically qualifying, because, as her mom put it, she "goofed off in the 11th grade."
So Reese made a two-year pit stop at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (MGCCC), which didn't have a track program. During her time there, she played basketball instead.
"Best player on the team," said Melanie Stone, who has been on the MGCCC basketball coaching staff since 2002. "She's probably the most athletic kid I've ever coached."
She dunked in practice wearing her trademark white headband, led the Lady Bulldogs with 18 points and nine rebounds per game and was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame this past October.
Reese had basketball offers to transfer to small four-year schools, but Ole Miss still wanted her for track and field. So she and her mom sat down with Rebels track coach Joe Walker, who had spent the last 20 years in Oxford and produced Olympians at every Games from 1976 to 2000.
"I thought she had the potential to be great," said Walker, Oxford born with a Southern drawl. "I don't know what that means when you say that. I don't know that anybody totally had the foresight to think she was going to do everything she's accomplished. But I certainly didn't think that was an impossibility."
She could be good in basketball, he said, but she could be world-class in track and field, and mother and daughter agreed. It wasn't easy giving up basketball, her first sports love, but Reese eventually found meaning in two pairs of Rebel red track-and-field socks.
"I finally realized that I am running track now, and I'm not playing basketball anymore," Reese said. "I could let the headband go."
She alternated wearing the socks at meets the last five years, through SEC, NCAA, U.S. and world championships, earning her nickname through versatility.
Reese, 25, can high jump 6 feet, long jump 23 feet, triple jump 43 feet, run the 100 meters in 11.2 seconds and, for fun, jump up and touch chandeliers or whatever else hangs within her reach.
She won the 2008 Olympic trials and qualified first for the Olympic long jump final, to be held on the next to last night of the Games. Despite those feats, Reese was the fourth-ranked long jumper for the year. For Reese, any medal would have been satisfactory. Her ultimate finish at the Olympics -- fifth place -- was not.
"I was devastated," Reese said.
Reese remembers the rest of the night, sitting alone on the shuttle back to the athletes' village. There were a few tears. When she got back to her room, support came from the two most influential people in her life: her coach (e-mail) and mom (phone call).
"She felt like she had let the United States down and the city of Gulfport," said Young, who watched Reese at the Bird's Nest Stadium that night. "I told her, no she didn't. She didn't let anybody down, not even herself. ... She wasn't a failure."
After the 2008 Games, Reese vowed not to miss a major podium again, and she's done well so far; she hasn't even dropped off the top step in the last three years. She won the outdoor world championships in 2009 and 2011, an indoor world title in 2010 and three straight U.S. outdoor titles, too. She also completed her coursework at Ole Miss, receiving a degree in English, the high school subject that held her back.
Two goals are on the horizon: Olympic gold in London and the American record held by her role model, the iconic Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
Joyner-Kersee, also a former basketball player, sees a lot of herself in Reese. She was most proud upon reading about Reese's trip home to Gulfport for Thanksgiving, when Reese helped hand out 100 turkeys to those less fortunate in Mississippi's Katrina-damaged second-largest city.
"She wasn't looking for publicity," Joyner-Kersee said. "It shows her character. Things like that really touch me."
Joyner-Kersee texted "heart of a champion" to Reese, honoring the gesture. As Reese gets within range of Joyner-Kersee's 17-year-old record, the two will only get closer.
"If I feel like I'm going to break the American record," Reese said, "she wants to be there (to see it)."
The record is 24 feet, 7 inches, greater than 1 ½ mid-size cars and a foot longer than Reese's personal best set this year. Reese, who jumped 18 feet for the Coke in high school, improved by three-quarters of a foot since 2008; she still has a long way to go, but her coach said she's been at or near the record on jumps with minor fouls.
It shouldn't take anything near Kersee's mark to win Olympic gold. Reese's best is also the world's longest jump over the last four years.
"We will be disappointed if she's not the gold medalist," Walker said. "If she goes there and does what she's capable of doing, I think she's the best in the world."