Boarding a plane in Istanbul, Turkey, in March of this year, Mississippian Brittney Reese looked at her phone. To her surprise, she found a message from the very woman whose 18-year-old American Indoor long jump record she had just broken.
“Congratulations, Ms. Indoor Champion and American Record holder!” Jackie Joyner-Kersee had texted her.
“She’s been rooting for me for a while now,” Reese said humbly. “And if you have a person like that on your side, it’s an honor.”
The 25-year-old Gulfport native is not just a record holder and Olympian, she’s also the reigning world champion in the women’s long jump, a title she’s held four times.
Hard to believe it all started over a can of soda.
“My track coach took the basketball team out to the field and basically said ‘Whoever can jump the furthest gets a coke,’“ Reese remembers.
With long, slim legs, square shoulders and torso, Reese has the build of a natural athlete. Playing basketball on school teams since fourth grade, she had dabbled in the 400 meters, just to keep fit when the coke episode happened. Still, the Olympian’s career nearly got scuppered by her school’s track coach.
“He wouldn’t let me go, because I was already competing in the 400 [meters],” Reese said.
But Reese begged and begged to let her try, too. She prevailed and the coach was in for a big surprise.
“It was like a 17 foot jump. He told me to go back and do it again. And I did it again. And it was about the same or maybe a little more,” Reese remembers with a grin.
She got the coke, he got a track star.
That was ten years ago. Subsequently, Reese’s mom, Carla Young, persuaded her daughter to ditch basketball, her first love, for the long jump. Reese bought into her mom’s argument that in track and field you don’t have to rely on others; you are your own team.
Since then, her rise has been steep. Now she frequently jumps over 23 feet at track meets, soaring past her competition.
This year’s Summer Olympics in London were not her first. Reese had also competed at the Beijing Olympics four years ago. Lack of experience, not lack oftalent, kept her off the podium in China, said her trainer, Ole Miss track and field head coach Joe Walker.
“She had one jump that was a very small fault that would have won the competition,” Walker said. “And I think she just did not have the experience to handle that at the time. After that, she started pressing just a little bit, and then trying to make it happen and got a little, tiny bit flustered.”
Reese, who turned pro in 2008 and graduated from the University of Mississippi with a degree in English last year, still trains at Ole Miss two to three hours every day. Down the road, she said she’d like to become a coach herself. Clearly, the close relationship with her own coach is part of her success.
“You know sometimes to be great in athletics – it almost forces you to be selfish. And she’s not,” said Walker, who clearly dotes on his star pupil. “She’s very humble; she’s very caring about other people. If you walked in on any given day you wouldn’t immediately determine that she was the world champion in the room.”
Not much for words, the 5 foot 8 Reese is a self-described homebody who much prefers computer games and time with family to going out. Instead, her skin does the talking, adorned with tattoos that chronicle her life. All have personal meaning, she said, like the cross on her right arm that commemorates those family members who have passed away.
Another one, on the inside of her arm, simply reads: “Born a champion.”
“I think I was born a champion,” Reese smiles. “I’ve been winning for a while now.”
On the left side of her chest she bears the Olympic rings inside the image of a beast. Atop it says “Da Beast,” which is the nickname she got at Ole Miss. “B Reese Da Beast.”
And boy can this beast fly.
Photo courtesy of Ole Miss Athletics and Associated Press // Story by Sandra Knispel