Saturday, 22 August 2009

With third Long Jump title, Phillips’ comeback is complete

World Leader Dwight Phillips of the United States in flight in the men's Long Jump final at the 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Berlin  (Getty Images)

World Leader Dwight Phillips of the United States in flight in the men's Long Jump final at the 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Berlin (Getty Images)

Berlin, Germany - No one could have put it better than the man himself.

“It was like history looking at me in the face.”

That is how Dwight Phillips, the newly crowned World Long Jump champion, the man who won this title back in 2003 and 2005, described the moment which will most probably remain as the most inspiring of these 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics.

The moment when Marlene Dortch, granddaughter of Jesse Owens, the African American who won four gold medals in this same stadium 73 years ago at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, passed the gold medal around Phillips’ neck.

In this historical ceremony which originates from a joint IAAF and BOC initiative, Dortch was accompanied by President Lamine Diack and Julia Long, granddaughter of Lutz Long, the German favourite of the Games, the man Adolf Hitler had chosen as the representative of the superiority of the Aryan race and yet the man who defied all logics by “helping” Owens in his attempt to win the Long Jump gold medal in 1936.

It was like history looking at a capacity crowd 56,000 spectators.

Hardly anyone could have been a more appropriate winner in tonight’s final than 31-year-old Phillips who has come back from “an extremely low point in my life. To go to the US Olympic Trials last year and come fourth…I had been injured seven weeks prior to the Trials and I knew it was going to be pretty hard but I still thought I was superman,” Phillips explained. “I didn’t think three people would beat me.

Phillips was inches from retiring from the sport after an extremely disappointing 2008 season yet returned in 2009 to become the seventh man on the all-time World lists.

“The press had said it was over for me, they had pretty much written my obituary, undertakers had taken my organs… I was dead.

“I am just grateful I managed to rise to the occasion today.”

And that’s just what Phillips did on the penultimate night at what has been a fantastic edition of the IAAF World Championships. He was expected to win. He was expected to jump big and big he did jump.

Phillips opened with a massive jump which was measured at 8.40, that’s with him taking off a full 23 centimetres from the board. He backed that up with a second-round 8.54 which would eventually be the winning mark.

So just how did Phillips manage to get back on top of the stage which had been only his since his Paris World title and the Athens Olympic gold?

“It started off at the beginning of the year when I had the opportunity to change coach and started working with Loren Seagrave,” – the man whose former athletes included Olympic champions Donovan Bailey and Gwen Torrence.

“He put me in the right direction from the beginning. He made sure we didn’t over train. So since then I made a commitment that I would leave everything I had on the track. We trained well and hard. So to get this third World gold medal means so much to me.

“At the beginning of the season I worked extremely hard, I got my body balanced so had less injuries. I jumped 8.51 in my first meeting of the year and that’s exactly when I knew I would win the World Championships. I had never opened with such a big jump. I was faster than I’d never had been, I jumped longer than I’d never had done.

“I am blessed that today I made it happen.”

In order to get back to the very top of the world, Phillips not only changed coach but had to work on his own body shape which, since his disappointment of not taking part in the Beijing Olympic Games, was far from ideal shape.

“This whole week I have been thinking about my weight,” he naturally admits. “I’ve become like obsessed by my weight. Back in January I was 198 pounds (close to 90kg) and I made a commitment that in order to get the best out of myself I had to lose some weight. I lost 26 pounds (nearly 12kg).”

The Decatur, Georgia-born athlete has been pinpointed by World record holder Mike Powell as the most serious potential candidate to improve on his 8.95m mark which has stood since 1991.

“I definitely felt like I was prepared for the World record. We had good guys such as (silver medallist) Mokoena in the field and when you have a good competition that’s what it’s going to take to get the record. I feel I’m in great shape.

“I’ve got nothing else to prove except the World record now so I’m going for it.”

Phillips’ momentum of the championships is yet to be concluded as he has been invited by the IAAF to meet Owens’ granddaughter at tomorrow’s people’s show at the Champions Lounge located at the Brandenburg Gate.

“He (Owens) is such a great icon for the sport and for humanity,” Phillips said. “I had the opportunity to go and visit the museum. All the photographs spoke volumes about the type of person he was. It was an honour for me to represent the USA and wear the JO sign on my vest.

“Tomorrow I have been invited to meet his granddaughter and I’m really looking forward to that, to the opportunity of talking to her in person.

“I am lost for words.”

Indeed, there is nothing much else that needs to be said, the moment will remain in the history of the sport just like Jesse Owens’ achievements back in 1936 have remained engraved in the memories of all those who witnessed his exploits and all the generations to follow.

Laura Arcoleo for the IAAF