Being a conference champion, All-American, and NCAA finalist isn’t enough for Jeremy Taiwo. The senior decathlete continues to push the limits of his sport.
Being a conference champion, All-American, and NCAA finalist isn’t enough for Jeremy Taiwo. The senior decathlete continues to push the limits of his sport.Photo by Andrew Tat
Jeremy Taiwo’s right arm was throbbing. It was the first weekend of May 2011 at the Pac-10 Conference Track and Field Championships in Tucson, Ariz., and the senior decathlete from Renton, Wash., had already set personal bests in five decathlon events. He was about to complete the ninth of his 10 events: the javelin throw. But his right arm — his good arm — was in excruciating, searing pain.
It was too much pain to throw.
He’d injured the elbow throwing the javelin at a competition at Azusa Pacific University the previous month. Some athletes in his position might have thrown in the towel and decided that the injury was too much to overcome. Maybe this just wasn’t Taiwo’s time to win a Pac-10 title. Timing is so crucial in track and field.
But he was in too good of a position to just give up.
So he did the unthinkable. He threw the javelin with his left hand.
His throw traveled 107 feet, nine inches, which was 70 feet shorter than the throw of UCLA’s Trent Perez, who won the event. But what mattered was that Taiwo secured 300 points.
He won the title by 200 points, becoming the UW’s first Pac-10 champion decathlete since Mike Ramos in 1986.
Taiwo decided to throw with his left hand just to get some points and thought being right-handed or left-handed was more of an innate state of mind rather than a limit on his abilities.
It was a monumental realization. When Taiwo talks about his athletic ability, which is freakish, he refuses to set limits for himself. And why would he?
Besides being a Pac-10 champion, an All-American, an NCAA finalist, and former world-record holder, his many accomplishments as a track star are just a sliver of Taiwo as a person and only part of the reason why he doesn’t set boundaries for himself. Rather, how he handled a grueling and at times unlucky journey during his career at the UW better illustrates his humble, no ceilings attitude.
The Monday following his one-armed Pac-10 championship win, Taiwo traveled back to Washington to receive an MRI on his aching elbow. On Tuesday, a team doctor gave him news that no athlete at the top of his game ever wants to hear: surgery.
He had a torn ulnar collateral ligament and would need ligament replacement surgery, or what is popularly known as Tommy John surgery.
Rehabilitation would take six to nine months.
The bad luck didn’t stop there. The following fall, Taiwo had to undergo another surgery to rid himself of osteitis pubis, an inflammation of the pubis symphysis, which causes severe pain to the pelvic region. He would end up missing the entire 2012 track and field season.
During his rehab, he was bed-ridden for about a week. He spent a lot of time watching movies and reading, trying to keep his mind off the pain.
“Getting out of bed was just painful,” he said. “Every time I walked down to the track, my mindset was like ‘OK, just got to get through this practice,’ or ‘How long am I going to last this practice?’
“I sulked. I vented. I almost quit.”
But with encouragement provided by his family and coaches, Taiwo remained positive, and he didn’t quit. Not even injuries could limit him. Once he was able to fully walk again, he felt like he’d been given a second chance.
After 19 months away from competition, he returned for the 2013 season 100 percent healthy, determined to make the most of his final collegiate season. In February at the Boise State Team Challenge, he set a then-heptathlon world record in the high jump, clearing 7-4 1/2 feet.
The record didn’t particularly surprise his coaches, which is a huge testament to Taiwo’s immeasurable talent.
“It [was] not totally a shocker,” assistant coach Pat Licari said. “He’s capable of all that stuff. I think he’s got more talent than just about anyone I’ve ever coached.”
Licari has been coaching track and field for more than 20 years.
Taiwo is now a little more than a month away from finishing one of the best track and field careers in UW history. He’s gone from two intense surgeries and being out of competition for more than a year and a half to setting a world record. He feels fortunate to be competing at a high level again and believes he’s been given another chance to show what he can do. Setting no limits for himself, Taiwo wants to take track and field a step further by using his abilities to promote a sometimes overlooked sport.
“I just want to own up to what I’ve been given,” Taiwo said. “People who love track and field, if I can perform well, and inspire them, I think that’s one of the coolest things ever. I want to be someone who really tests the boundaries of the sport. If I can bring any attention over to the U.S. where track and field isn’t really the biggest thing, that would be awesome.”
When asked what his greatest achievement has been so far, he didn’t mention the world record or Pac-10 championship. He looked off into the distance and thought for a moment about what that was exactly, and the 23-year-old who’s already accomplished so much isn’t satisfied yet.
“I’m kind of still working on it,” he said. “I think what I’m trying to really work on is still being myself. Still being humble. I don’t want to be treated differently, and I don’t want to treat other people differently. I’m definitely trying to take away the stigma of athletes being the way they are. I’m trying to be who I was raised to be. That’s the biggest thing, and I want to keep working on that.”
Two weeks from now, Taiwo is poised to go to Los Angeles and win a Pac-12 championship, and then hopefully qualify for the NCAA championships in Eugene, Ore., in the first week of June. After that, he has dreams of joining the USA National Team and one day qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
But like most things in Taiwo’s life, he won’t limit himself to being just an athlete. Track doesn’t define him. He speaks Spanish, earned his degree in Latin American studies with a minor in global health, and would like to start working with nonprofit organizations in foreign countries to spread awareness of global-health issues after he’s done with track and field.
“At the end of the day, I know what I can do,” he said. “There’s no limit to what I can do.”
As long as he’s got at least one arm, he should be just fine.
Reach reporter Luke Severn at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @lukese7
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