MANKATO, Minn. – Jillisa Grant got to Minnesota for the NCAA Division II Indoor Track and Field Championships, and she immediately got sick.
Her nose ran. She coughed. Grant called it the flu.
“When I wake up in the morning I feel horrible,” she said.
The situation was not ideal for her debut at the indoor championships. Yet three days later, on Friday, Grant leapt 6.26 meters (26 feet, 6.5 inches) on her first attempt in the long jump finals.
It was an indoor personal best. It was a national championship. It was a meet record.
It should have been reason to celebrate.
But for Grant, a senior at New Mexico Highlands and an Olympic hopeful for Jamaica, the reaction was a bit more subdued.
“Sick,” she said softly when asked how she felt about her performance.
And disappointed. Grant, whose leap of 6.36 won the NCAA DII long jump title last spring, has high expectations. She was happy to win, but she believed she was capable of more.
In late June, Grant expects to go to Kingston for Jamaica’s Olympic Trials. Then she expects to go to London in July for the Olympic Games. And she doesn’t stop there.
“My goal is to jump at least 6.7, 6.6 (meters), to make it to the Olympics,” she said. “Then I’d have to jump like 6.8 to make it to the finals, in the Olympics.”
It’s big talk, but both Grant and her long jump coach were confident she could have hit around 6.6 on Friday had she been healthy.
“My honest opinion?” Highlands assistant Patrick Johnson said. “She broke the record, but I think she is much better than what she has achieved.”
Track has been a way of life for Grant since middle school in Spanish Town, Jamaica, when she started running. Her parents both ran the 400 meters, and Grant quickly excelled in multiple events. In addition to the long jump, Grant was third in the 200-meter prelims at the indoor championships on Friday, advancing to Saturday’s final. She will also run on New Mexico Highlands’ 4×400 relay team Saturday.
At last year’s outdoor championships, Grant competed in the 200 (seventh), 400 (fifth), 4×100 (seventh) and long jump (first). And she’s known to hurdle, as well.
If she really had her choice, though, Grant would stick mostly to long jump, her favorite and — in her opinion — best event.
“My coaches think otherwise,” she said with a smile. “They think the 400 is my best event, which I don’t like.”
It is in long jump that Grant ultimately believes she can qualify for the Olympic Games. The road to get there will undoubtedly be steep, but with performances like she had today, Johnson believes she’s got a shot.
The two have known each other since Grant was 11. They worked together on and off since then, reuniting at New Mexico Highlands last year after Grant spent three years at Southwestern Christian College, near Dallas.
“She’s a competitor,” he said. “No matter what, she will always rise to the occasion.”
The key now will be perfecting the intangibles and the lifestyle that it takes to become an Olympic-level athlete.
“She has to look at it like you are going to a job,” he said. “You have to prepare yourself, both physically, emotionally, nutritionally, all the different aspects to get into her into that (elite level).”
“At that level, there is no room for errors,” he added. “It’s either you make it or you don’t.”
Grant has about nine months to finish her degree in human performance. She has a little more than three months until the Olympic Trials. Until then, Grant has the whole NCAA outdoor season to show the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference what she looks like when she doesn’t have the flu.
“If you want to beat her, then you really have to take it from her,” Johnson said. “At this level, I don’t think there is anyone who can take it from her.”