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It's Time to Appreciate the Olympic Legacy of Brittney Reese

The veteran U.S. long jumper is competing in her fourth and final Games in Tokyo.

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TOKYO — The most super-accomplished-and-yet-criminally-underrated Olympian in U.S. history goes by Brittney, B-Reese or The Beast. Sometimes, the monikers even combine, forming an enviable nickname: B-Reese Da Beast.

Regardless, the longer jumper who arrived here as the favorite—full name: Brittney Reese—does not care deeply about any moniker she might be tagged with. She long ago gave up on outside perception, when it failed to keep pace with her accomplishments, which are too numerous to list in full.

For starters, she has collected more U.S. national titles (13) than the candles on the birthday cakes of the youngest Olympians in Tokyo (two are 12 years old). Her participation in world championship events reads like one of those passwords for home Wi-Fi that the owners never changed: ’07-’09-’11-’13-’15-’17-’19 for the outdoor version; followed by ’10-’12-’16-’18 for the indoor one. She won long jump gold medals in ’09, ’10, ’11, ’12, 13’ and ’16, adding a dreaded (not really) silver three years ago.

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Reese is also only the fourth women's long jumper in U.S. history to appear in four separate Olympics, starting in 2008 and continuing for every cycle since. She finished fourth in Beijing, still young, still perfecting her craft; then went gold (London) and silver (Rio), although she leapt farther in ’16 than in ’12. She holds two of the top jumps of all-time, too, with her personal best a full 24-foot, 5-1/2-inches between takeoff and landing.

Even for someone who covers track about as often as he runs fast—author raises hand sheepishly—it’s striking how little the outside world seems to know about her. That’s not to say she’s ignored entirely, or without celebration in the track community that considers her a legend. But imagine a sprint star with seven world championship or Olympic golds accumulated in a single event over a period of 14 years. Their face would have landed on the front cover of a Wheaties box. The shoe that they competed in would be sold under their name. Anyway, Air Da Beast has a nice ring to it, if the outside world ever comes around.

Her coach, Jeremy Fischer, agrees with the overall sentiment, arguing that the totality of her medal haul, the stretch from 2009 to ’13 where she won every international championship competition she competed in and her career longevity all add up to “one of the greatest feats ever in track and field, period.”

He, too, long ago grew accustomed to spotlights that seemed to always shine somewhere nearby but also somewhere else. Combined, Fischer’s Olympic and Paralympic pupils have won over 20 world championship medals. He compares that group of elite jumpers to a Rodney Dangerfield famous routine, the bit on “I don’t get no respect.”

“It’s funny,” he says, laughing. “I must be the scourge of the earth or something.”

If Fischer is biased due to his personal connection to this informal debate, Al Joyner is not. He won Olympic gold for triple jump in 1984. His sister, Jackie Joyner-Kersee still holds the all-time Games mark for long jumpers (7.4 meters, or, roughly, 22 feet, 7.28 inches). So, he knows a thing or 45 about the land of leaps. Asked if he agrees with Fischer’s sentiment, Joyner says, over the phone from Los Angeles, “Without a doubt.”

All that not in mind but out of it, Da Beast flew out to Tokyo, ready to reclaim the gold medal she had lost in Rio. To qualify for the final round, she needed to fly at least 6.5 meters (21.3 feet-ish) on Sunday or finish inside the top 12. On her second attempt, she pounded down the runway, took off like a float plane and landed, sand spraying like a turbulent day at the beach. It was hot outside, like over 90, but that actually helped her. She sat down on a metal bench and extended one arm toward the camera, wagging the right index finger, sending both a cosmic message and a literal one. She had taken over first place and would stay there for Group A, qualifying for the final alongside mentee Tara Davis (who recorded a 6.85).

Almost immediately, Reese sauntered into the mixed zone, her stride alone indicative of how she jumps. Told of the sentiment her coach and Joyner had agreed upon, she said she didn’t want to argue with anyone and always kept a “humble heart.” And yet, of her standing in U.S. Olympic history being lower than it should be, she said, “Most definitely.”

“I mean, if you look at the numbers, I have the most gold medals,” Reese added. “I understand I’m not on the track, and it’s not that big of deal to the American people. But I don’t complain about that.”

Not with another Olympic gold to win. What stood out about her performance Sunday wasn’t so much how far she soared but her entire approach to an event that’s part speed, part athleticism, part fast-twitch and part art. Joyner, the Olympic leaper turned coach, says there are all sorts of ways to launch the farthest. His sister set the Olympic mark, for example, with a more classic style, all elegance and glide.

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Anyone who might expect Da Beast to compete that way has never watched Da Beast compete. Reese does not float down the runway; her feet hit the track as if it stole her medals, each step threatening to leave indentation marks. The turbulence in her running style garners speed, until the moment it’s time to launch. Because of that speed, and because of that experience, that’s when the flying starts.

“I got a lot of swag,” says the medal contender who pronounced herself the top medal contender nine days ago.

“I still feel like I’m the favorite,” Reese said, adding that she felt a 7-meter leap—still well within her range—would win.

With that kind of style, and that kind of nickname, no wonder Fischer can’t make sense of Da Beast’s minimized renown. As to why, he pointed to the machinery that he says exists in track and field, where certain athletes are promoted and other, more accomplished ones are not. He cites Lolo Jones and the 2012 Olympics as an example, starting with a “no offense to Lolo Jones.” Then he notes how much attention Jones garnered in the lead-up. It’s not like she begged for it, he adds, but it came her way, in waves, nonetheless. That she was photogenic, marketable, fast and accomplished also didn’t hurt matters. “But she didn’t win a silver medal,” he said. “Dawn Harper did.” (Jones finished fourth.)

Fischer believes that Reese is an easy story for America to lean into, made for primetime while showing so far in the afternoons. Beyond the longevity and the penchant for heavy medaling, she adopted a young boy, Alex, at age 5. Reese took Alex in to help her best friend, and so that he could attend better schools. She misses him while halfway across the world, but she also brought her Xbox so that they can play Call of Duty every day (for him) and night (for her). Surprise, but Alex, now 13, is also a budding track leaper.

He sent Reese a text on Sunday morning.

I love you, and I’m still the best long jumper.

Yeah, right, she wrote back, perhaps with a middle finger emoji.

That’s the side of Da Beast that Fischer wants the rest of the world to witness. She’s funny, sharp. “She’s really quiet,” he says. “I think that’s part of it. Once you get to know her, she’s the most hilarious, amazing, loving person in the world.”

With that kind of style, and that kind of nickname, plus that kind of back story, Reese should be celebrated like the star her accomplishments shout she is. But that’s not even all of it. It wasn’t all that long ago when she considered quitting track, retiring. She wanted to win so badly—and hated to lose so much—that she had clenched all of the joy out of her pursuit, like wringing water from a wet towel. “She’s always so alive,” Fischer says, “and she forgot how to be alive.”

So Reese started to see a sports psychologist/performance coach, who helped her to regain her motivation, bettered her diet and boosted her back to the top levels of her sport. He, quite hilariously, compares her physical transformation to L.L. Cool J’s, a rapper so cut now his muscles have their own muscles. Reese resides in a better headspace, too. And, since mental health has become the defining element of these Olympics, she’s perfect to represent that.

“She’s helping to lead that change,” Fischer said.

So is Raven Saunders, the colorful, charismatic American women’s shot putter who won a silver medal here on Sunday. She competed with a spirit that radiated joy, from her buzz cut to her mask (plastic-filter) to her dye job (one half green, one purple; a nod to The Joker) and her nickname (the Hulk). But en route to the medal podium, she also told her story, from the suicidal thoughts she had three years ago to the therapy that helped her, too, recover.

Both Saunders and Reese showed a sports world—and an actual world—now grappling more and more with mental health that there’s no one picture, no one life, career, family, or investment account, that equates to easy happiness or the absence of struggles. Saunders could be thrilled simply to compete here, then deploy that joy to propel her to the silver. Reese could understand that this would be her last Olympics, and whether her country showered her with praise or ignored her competition altogether, she could focus only on the history ahead; on helping Davis, the teammate who once placed a Da Beast poster on her bedroom wall; on Alex, her adopted son, and his future in athletics. Not to mention her gold medal final, held on Tuesday here.

There remains a long way to go before athletes will truly be recognized for what they are, which is human, their brains as important as their brawn. But one week after the Internet exploded mostly in support of Simone Biles, which felt like an improvement from the reaction to Naomi Osaka’s French Open withdrawal, there were two Americans on Saturday, starring the morning after their compatriots failed to medal in the 100-meter race.

There’s a word for that. It’s progress.

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