Georgia’s Keturah Orji improving by leaps and bounds in first season
ATHENS, Ga. -- Great athletes routinely make the difficult look easy. In track and field, little, if anything, is more difficult than the triple jump.
Sure, it's technically only a hop, step and a jump. But to do all three and carry speed and momentum all the way through until you land in the sand, that's about the epitome of easier said than done.
"You can be the strongest, fastest and most powerful [long] jumper in the world, but you still may not jump very far because it's so technical," said UGA associate head coach Petros Kyprianou, who coaches the Bulldogs' jumpers and multi-event athletes. "The loss of speed is amazing. You can lose up to 70 percent of your speed in each phase if you don't hit the ground the right way. It's definitely an event for the few; it's not for everybody.
"It takes a lot of repetition, a lot of technical work and a lot of great ability to transfer your speed through your phases."
Georgia freshman Keturah Orji has that great ability, and more. At the SEC Championships earlier this month, she jumped 46 feet, 4 1/4 inches to take first place. Her jump improved on her school record, set a new SEC Championships record and was the third best jump in the world this year. She also placed third in the SECs in the long jump.
Last weekend she became one of only two competitors nationwide to advance to the NCAA Championships in Eugene, Ore. in both the women's triple and long jumps. She won the triple (43-10 ¾) at the NCAA East Prelims and was eighth in the long jump.
Orji started jumping as a freshman in high school. She joined the track team to run sprints and her coach told her she had to do the long jump, as well.
"Then I realized I'm better at the jumps than the sprints," she said earlier this week, before the Bulldogs went down to the NCAA East Preliminaries in Jacksonville, Florida, where she will compete starting Friday in the long jump and triple jump.
She had never done the triple jump in a meet until her sophomore year, when she begged her coach repeatedly to let her try it.
"Finally at one meet she said, OK, you can try it. So the first time I jumped, I actually made the sand and ever since then ... I almost broke the school record with my first jump," she recalled. "Then they were like, oh, this is a good event for her."
It was clear from the start that she was a natural. She was a three-time state champion in the long jump and triple jump. As a junior she won a silver medal in the long jump and a bronze in the triple at the World Youth Championships. As a senior she swept the indoor and outdoor long and triple jump titles at the New Balance National Championships, as well as winning the triple jump at the USA Junior Championships.
Orji credits doing gymnastics when she was young for part of her early success.
"You have to be really strong to do it and gymnastics prepares you for that," she said.
As a triple jumper in high school, Orji said she relied solely on her athletic ability. Most high school coaches aren't experts in an event like the triple jump, so when she arrived at Georgia she was still pretty raw.
"I was literally just going out there and jumping," she said. "My coaches tried their best but didn't have a lot of knowledge about it. I come here and Petros knows about the technique. He's worked on my arms and my chest positions when I'm doing the hop, step, jump phases. The technique (improvements) have taken me this far."
Kyprianou said Orji was a highly prized recruit, for whom he had very high expectations.
"One of the selling points in getting her to come here was that I coached a girl that jumped 50 feet at the Olympics and medaled," Kyprianou said, referring to Hrysopiyi "Pigi" Devetzi, who took the silver at the 2004 Olympics. "And when I showed [Orji] her technique, we both agreed that my job is to get her to look like that, technique-wise.
"I thought it would be about a four-year project, but it's coming together quicker than we thought. That's because of her ability and maturity in the sport."
This week she was named the SEC Women's Freshman Field Athlete of the Year, the second year in a row a Lady Bulldog has earned this honor.
Clearly the best is yet to come.