On the early evening of March 12, Texas junior Tara Davis raced down the long jump runway at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships toward a leap a lifetime in the making.
At Agoura High School she set U.S. Junior (Under 20) and national high school long jump records indoors and won a World Youth title outdoors. The question wasn’t whether Davis would go to the Olympics but how many Olympics?
But at the University of Georgia, she never approached the lofty heights that once seemed like a foregone conclusion, grounded by a series of injures, mocked on social media and in track geek chat rooms as a washed-up has-been at 19 and 20, largely estranged from her college coach who she said doubted her and eventually wrote her off before she transferred to Texas.
When she hit the take-off board that night in March, she was just three months removed from being on the verge of walking away from the sport for good, physically and emotionally broken, lost, by her own admission, in the fog of depression.
Channeling all her pain and all her frustration, she struck the board with aggression, confidence and power that left some observers awestruck. She soared out of the fog and then continued to extend her flight, finally landing in new daylight, touching down in a place no collegiate woman had reached before.
When the mark was announced, 6.93 meters (22 feet, 9 inches), a new collegiate indoor record, Davis bounced from the infield onto the banked track at the University of Arkansas’ Tyson Indoor Center. She kept bouncing and bouncing, stopping only to hunch over, drawing a newfound power, clenching both her fists as she let out a roar that was as much a purging as a celebration; a cry unleashed from the depths of her soul finally drowning out all her detractors, all her demons.
— Texas T&F/XC (@TexasTFXC) March 17, 2021
“It was definitely just more than the 22-9 jump,” Davis said. “It was me being injured. It was me reading comments that I was a failure or people wished I’d failed. It was being blocked from competing by my old university. It was everything combined. When I screamed I just let out this intense roar of I’m finally back.”
Tara Davis, superstar, is indeed back.
Davis followed up her collegiate indoor record by adding more than a half-foot onto Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s 36-year-old college outdoor record with a 23-5½ (7.14) jump at the Texas Relays two weeks later.
It was the longest jump the world had seen by a woman since American Tianna Bartoletta’s winning mark at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro (7.17) and solidified Davis as one of the biggest favorites at the NCAA Outdoor Championships on Thursday in Eugene, Oregon, which is likely her final college meet.
Davis is expected to turn pro, forgoing her final season at Texas, by the time she returns to Eugene next week, also the favorite at the U.S. Olympic Trials against a field that includes the last two Olympic champions: Bartoletta and Brittney Reese, the London 2012 gold medalist and a seven-time world champion. Many in the sport expect Davis to extend the American women’s Olympic long jump winning streak in Tokyo later this summer.
Dwight Stones, the former world high jump record holder, said Davis is one of “five people with a legitimate shot at the gold medal and certainly a medal in Tokyo.” There are even some in the sport who have begun to ask a question that would have been considered blasphemous only months ago – could Davis eventually challenge Joyner-Kersee’s 27-year-old American record of 24-7, a mark that is only 1¼ inches off the world record set by the Soviet Union’s Galina Christyakova.
“Is she going to break Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s American record?” Stones said. “That’s a big ask. That’s a damn good record. Can she win the Olympic gold medal? Yeah, I think she can jump far enough to do that.”
The track isn’t the only place Davis is putting up big numbers. It is more than just Davis’ record-breaking résumé that makes her attractive to shoe companies and other potential corporate sponsors. “Tara and Hunter,” the YouTube channel Davis has with Hunter Woodhall, her longtime boyfriend and a Paralympic medal-winning sprinter, has more than 234,000 subscribers. A September 2018 post on the page has received more than 1.9 million views.
Davis’ Tik Tok account has more than 138,600 followers. A post last August in which Davis touched on mask-wearing and social distancing received 4.7 million views and more than 246,300 likes.
Those hundreds of thousands of fans have followed her through her years-long battles with injuries and depression and through triumph and vindication.
“You don’t want the world to get the best of you, to chew you up and spit you out and to say you weren’t good enough,” Texas coach Eldrick Floreal said. “The world crushed you. You want to know, ‘Man, I fought the good fight. I got my teeth kicked in, but I put my teeth back in and I came back fighting. The world gave me its best shot and the best shot was pretty damn good. Almost took me out. But I came back, I came back strong and I overcame all this stuff.’”
CHAPTER 1: THE LIST
Sometime in September or October, Davis, worn down by a series of injuries (two broken vertebrae, a broken foot, a broken hip, numerous pulled muscles) and falling deeper and deeper into depression, gave herself a deadline to decide on whether or not to stay in the sport.
“It was just three years of injury after injury and problem after problem,” Woodhall said. “Then after all these things, it’s easy to say, ‘Hey, maybe the problem is me.’ But obviously, as we now know in retrospect that wasn’t the issue. And it’s corrected, but track is a very challenging sport mentally. It’s hard to deal with bad performances and injuries for a season, let alone three. I would say she was really low, to a point where Tara was genuinely considering quitting track. She was just kind of over it all.”
So last fall she sat down and made a list of the pros and cons of continuing in track and field.
“If I didn’t do the things I wanted to do by this date, I was done,” Davis recalled. “I wrote the pros and cons and I was going through the pros and cons and there were more pros than cons for quitting track so I kind of paid attention to that. But I wrote a date where if I still felt the same way I did at this time then I was definitely done.”
The deadline date was Dec. 5.
“It was the same day (in 2018) I told my coach from Georgia that I was transferring,” Davis said. “Since this date is pretty significant in my life, if you don’t want to do track anymore this is the day you’re going to think. It was a life-changing day and I knew that this day would be life-changing.”
Davis set state records in the 100-meter hurdles (12.95 seconds), 60 indoor hurdles (8.14), indoor long jump (21-11) and outdoor long jump (22-1) at Agoura while also a member of the school’s national championship cheerleading squad. As a senior she won state titles in the 100 hurdles, long and triple jumps then won gold medals in the hurdles and long jump at the Pan American Jr. Games.
She also fell in love with Woodhall.
He was just 11 months old when doctors amputated both his legs just below the knees because of fibular hemimelia, a birth defect where part or all of the fibular bone is missing. Doctors told his parents he would never walk. Instead, Woodhall became the first double-amputee athlete to receive a scholarship from an NCAA Division I track program and a three-time All-American at Arkansas in the 4×400 relay.
They first met at an indoor meet in Pocatello, Idaho, in 2017. Woodhall, a Utah native, won the 400 and was making his way off the track when Davis approached him.
“Hey, I just feel like I need to give you a hug,” Woodhall recalled Davis telling him. “I was nervous the rest of the meet to talk to her.”
But they later connected on social media and when Woodhall was training in Chula Vista that summer, Davis drove down to visit him.
“And the rest is kind of history,” Woodhall said. “A really amazing journey.”
Pursued by every major college track power, Davis chose Georgia and Petros Kyprianou, a coach with a reputation for developing world-class jumpers and multi-event athletes.
Freshman Davis set the world Under-20 60 hurdles record (7.98) in the 2018 NCAA Indoor meet prelims, then came back to finish fifth in the final and third in the long jump, clinching a 1-2-3 Georgia sweep in the event that was pivotal to the Bulldogs winning the team title.
But banged up and struggling to connect with Kyprianou, Davis was unable to replicate her high school success in her first outdoor college season. She failed to break 13.0 in the hurdles or 22 feet for Georgia. At the NCAA Outdoor Championships, she finished fifth in the long jump (21-3¼) and failed to make it out of the prelims in the hurdles. Davis wrapped up her freshman campaign with a bronze medal finish at the World Under-20 Championships, jumping 20-10½, more than a foot short of her personal best.
Time and again Davis turned to Kyprianou for support and guidance. Instead, Davis said, she was met with doubt and skepticism. At the same time, her parents were going through a divorce and wildfires threatened the area where Davis grew up. She began to slip into depression.
“So much happened there,” Davis said referring to Georgia. “That’s where my depression really started. My parents were getting a divorce. The fires that were happening in California were close to home. A lot of my friends were having to leave, evacuate. My mom was there alone. I couldn’t fly there because everything was shut down so I was very overwhelmed with everything, and with my parents’ divorce I wasn’t there to mediate or help my mom or help my dad at the toughest times of their lives.
“My coach said he was understanding but I was so depressed and he was always like, ‘Why are you always so sad, why do you always have a long face?’ It was like I’ve told you everything that’s going on in my life. I don’t think you really understand like, how this is affecting me.”
The divide between Kyprianou and Davis grew even wider the following fall, when Kyprianou downplayed back pain that had been bothering Davis for weeks.
“He always told me it was just muscle spasms,” Davis said. “I never got an MRI. I never got an X-ray on it. It was just not a positive place for me at the time.”
The injury was later diagnosed as not back spasms but a fractured vertebra.
“It’s one of those things as an athlete you want to be tough, you want to be perceived as competent and when you think there’s something wrong with your body and then you go and try to open up to somebody about it or complain about it and try and find a solution for it, (and they respond) like, ‘Hey, just you, you’re overreacting, you’re fine, just push through it,’” Woodhall said. “It’s then you’re in a mental battle with yourself of ‘Man, am I just overthinking this? Am I just being a baby? Or is there something actually wrong?’ In Tara’s case, she is so tough, she is so mentally strong, her thought process is, ‘Ok, let’s just push through this,’ and you can continue pushing what at the time was a fracture in her back, a very big deal.”
An even bigger deal for Kyprianou, Davis said, was her admission that she was seeing a therapist to deal with her depression.
“The back was definitely the final straw and when I told him I was seeing a therapist he told me that was really bad and he told me I needed to transfer,” Davis said. “That was definitely the icing on the cake, cherry on top where I was like, ‘OK, I’m absolutely leaving this place.’ And I loved the University of Georgia so much. It was hard to leave. I made friends like no other. I had so many friends. Loved the city of Athens.
“But the toxic environment with my coach and how we would go back and forth all the time. That is not how an athlete and coach should be.
“I never asked questions after that. I’m trying to get my mental health so I can stay here, I’m trying to understand why I’m going through all these things. He told me that’s bad and that I needed to transfer or resign. I’m not sure how to interpret it. I’ll leave, don’t even worry about it.”
Kyprianou did not respond to a request for comment.
“To put it in perspective,” Woodhall said. “she was there for two years and that one incident took her out for an entire year and within half a season of her not being under that leadership she broke two collegiate records. So …”
CHAPTER 2: PICKING UP THE PIECES
Davis considered transferring to USC or TCU before deciding on Texas, where Floreal had arrived from Kentucky in June 2018. Under Floreal’s guidance, Keni Harrison broke the 28-year-old 100 hurdles world record (12.20) in 2016. A year later he guided Omar McLeod (110 high hurdles) and Kori Carter (400 hurdles) to gold medals at the World Championships.
Floreal had recruited Davis for Kentucky when she was in high school. She loved Floreal. Lexington, not so much.
Davis arrived in Austin with the fractured vertebra. The rest of her was broken into even more pieces.
“She was like Humpty Dumpty,” Floreal said. “It was more putting together than I ever had to do, more than I could have anticipated. And it was not just physical. It was emotional, it was physical, it was all of the above. She was just no confidence, no flair, no flash, everything is negative, everything is gloomy, a lot of depression.
“She had a lot of energy,” Floreal continued, referring to Davis when he recruited her at Kentucky. “And when she got into the (NCAA transfer) portal, obviously, I got excited and then she came on campus and I was like, ‘uh, this is not the person I remember. It was just like a shell. She was zero fun to be around, everything is ‘whoa is me,’ the end of the world. Just not the same person at all.”
“So it was sort of getting that joy and the happiness and the kid in the candy store back. Everybody knows about her depression and she probably thought about doing harm to herself. She was just not in a good place, I’ll say that. Her head was down all the time. Her head was always inside of her hoody, always baggy clothes, not that happy, bubbly person we know she can be, so it took some doing to get that confidence back and to get her feeling like she was invincible. It took a little work but that’s part of the game.”
Adding to her depression was the fact that because Georgia had refused to release her, she had to sit out the 2019 indoor and outdoor college seasons under NCAA transfer rules.
“I honestly think a lot of my depression came from not knowing where I stood in track, not knowing where I stood in life,” Davis said. “I’m a performer and I couldn’t perform. I couldn’t show who I was. I couldn’t express who I was. And my expression comes from track and field, and track and field was my getaway from everything and once it turned into something I didn’t want to do, it even became a bigger depression because that was my one true love. How am I going to not do that? Where is my life without track? So a lot it came from not competing, not knowing where I stood ranked-wise. Watching all my teammates compete in 2019 and I couldn’t compete and it was just all of it built up and then being taken away and all these injuries I was like, ‘Wow, it’s time to stop.’”
She leaned on Woodhall, at the time competing for Arkansas. The couple called or texted each other “day in, day out, every hour,” Davis said.
“Just the amount of days I had to take calls of where she was having panic attacks, just overthinking, tears, all of these things, self-doubt,” Woodhall said. “And it was hard to blame her and it was hard to explain the situation or make any sense out of what was happening.”
There is a shift in energy in Davis when she speaks of Woodhall, her voice full of excitement and gratitude and awe; a sense of connection and debt only they truly understand.
“That kid is my inspiration along with other people’s,” she said. “He has inspired me in so many ways in being happy and being positive and with him by my side, it has really changed who I am. I have a therapist. I have my parents and yeah, they’re all super, super supportive, but he received the back end of everything. Things I don’t tell my parents or don’t tell my therapist and for him to stay with me and be with me and stay with me when I’m struggling and my lowest of lows is unreal. Unreal. I would honestly give him my life. I would give him everything because he genuinely saved my life.”
Davis became eligible to compete for Texas in January 2020 only to break her foot in training four days before what was supposed to be her first meet as a Longhorn. Finally, in late February, 629 days since her last competition, Davis made her Texas debut at the Big 12 Championships, finishing second in the 60 hurdles and fourth in the long jump. Within days the NCAA shut down the remainder of the indoor season and the outdoor campaign because of the coronavirus.
“Once COVID hit, I realize how quickly that could be taken away and I was like, ‘Wow, without track, I’m nobody,’” she said. “I have to figure out what I’m going to do. My mind went blank pretty much.”
CHAPTER 3: THE DEADLINE
By the fall she was asking herself if she even wanted to be a track athlete. She continued adding to her list of pros and cons of leaving the sport. And she circled Dec. 5 on her calendar.
“And I would write down all my thoughts before I would go to track practice,” she said. “I wrote a plan if I quit track. I wrote so many things.
“A con of me leaving was me not living my dream of becoming a professional athlete and then becoming an Olympian. That was my dream my entire life. I’ve been doing track since I was 4 years old. A pro was I could just live the life I wanted to live and I could be as free as I wanted to. Which, I don’t know if that would have been the best thing because I was so lost. I didn’t know what I was going to do if I was going to quit. I didn’t know if I would leave Texas? If I would stay at Texas? I had made promises. I told my grandparents that I would finish school. So it was like, all over the place. I was so lost. I was so confused.
“And I wrote down all my goals that I wanted to achieve and I was like, ‘I can’t quit.’ Once the season started kicking off it was, ‘Ok, we’re here now, let’s keep it going.’”
There would, however, be more challenges. Davis came into the 2021 season with a hip stress fracture and injuries have continued to hound her through last month’s NCAA regional. She jumped 22-10½ and also won the 100 hurdles on a badly sprained ankle at the Big 12 Outdoor Championships last month.
“I’m really not giving up this year,” she said.
Unlike the dynamic at Georgia, Davis and Floreal have been on the same page.
“I think that change for her going from Georgia to Texas being with Eldrick has obviously worked out very, very well,” said Stones, who as a broadcaster for ESPN was present for both of Davis’ college record jumps. “I don’t think that’s any kind of indictment on the program at Georgia, or Petros or anything else. I just think it was a better fit for Tara and she and Eldrick just connect on a different level.”
To make that connection, Floreal was willing to adjust his coaching.
“I think there’s too much emphasis sometimes put on coaching the event and not coaching the athlete and I don’t want to say Tara is needy but she had different needs when it comes to what makes her comfortable, what makes her happy, what makes her feel like she can be successful and I think I had to sort of adjust my coaching style and still get the work done but also make her feel comfortable and happy,” Floreal said. “You’ve met her sometimes, she can be like a bumblebee in a bushel of flowers, just trying to get into every flower. This is who she is. I think I had to adjust to meet her needs as opposed to force her to be the way I wanted her to be. So I guess Dwight is probably right that there is more of a connection there. I just let her be her.
“That’s the lesson I’ve learned. It doesn’t always have to be my way 100 percent. I can let the person keep their personality, who they are at their core. I just have to change the way they run and jump and do that. I don’t have to change a bubbly, silly girl into a serious, nerdy type of athlete.”
Through much of the indoor season, Davis said she was “still struggling mentally.”
“But I was getting better because I was back on the track, I was back competing. And there was just one practice where I just flipped a switch mentally and I was like, ‘OK, you have to fake, you have to smile, this isn’t you. Why would you want to live in a sad state all the time. Just be happy.’ If you have to fake being happy, that’s fine. I faked it and then I started not having to fake it anymore and this is where I’m at now.”
The pair reached a breakthrough in the aftermath of a heartbreaking loss at the Big 12 Indoors. Davis jumped 21-11, equaling her personal best, and appeared to have won the competition only to be edged by Texas Tech’s Ruth Usoro in the final round.
“She lost conference on the last jump,” Floreal said. “(Her mindset was) ‘If I can just win conference I’ll feel like I’m back.’ And she PR’d and then the girl passed her on the last jump and she was just devastated. She was so devastated.”
But Floreal also had her attention.
“The way you’re jumping is archaic, no way you’re going to beat anybody of any value (after the conference meet),” Floreal recalled telling Davis after the Big 12 meet. “I’ll do anything, just give me two weeks, do whatever I ask you to do, and buy into it and give it 110 percent and go to it, and I promise you you’ll own this event.”
Two weeks later she broke the collegiate indoor record and then followed up by shattering Joyner-Kersee’s outdoor mark. She has since jumped 22-10½ twice as well as 22-0¼, and 22-6½ on an injured hamstring on her only jump at the NCAA regional.
“I have 24 feet as a goal,” Davis said. “It was actually 23 feet before I went 23. It is, honestly, whatever it takes to win the Olympics and whatever that is, I want to get it. I’ve already achieved my goals for this season, way earlier than I expected. Now it’s just win the Olympic gold medal.”
CHAPTER 4: THE ULTIMATE GOAL
For now, however, Davis’ and Floreal’s focus is on winning NCAAs this week and then making the Olympic team. Floreal knows as well as anyone how difficult making Team USA can be. Harrison arrived at the 2016 Trials as the second-fastest woman ever in the 100 hurdles but failed to make the U.S. team, finishing sixth.
“Can she win a gold medal?” Floreal said of Davis. “I’d be a fool not to say that’s the goal, obviously. But I think talking about an Olympics you sort of get ahead of yourself. You start focusing on winning the gold in Tokyo, you forget to make the team. To be honest, I’m just trying to win the NCAA championship right now.
“The ultimate goal is to do that.
“She’s jumped 22-10 every meet, first jump with her eyes closed and it’s almost like she has this promise that she needed to fulfill and with that level of consistency, and winning the Olympic gold is really about consistency and if you can jump 23 feet one time and never do it again, you can’t really be a contender. So you have to be consistent.”
He is also reluctant to join the speculation over whether Davis can break Joyner-Kersee’s American record.
“These records are going to be there for a long time. I mean 23-5 in the women’s long jump, that’s going be there for a long time,” Floreal said. “What Jackie had (the college record) for 30 years? This one might be there for another 30. I think Tara’s made enough of an impact where Tara says, ‘I’ve kicked these demons. I was a high school phenom, then sort of a college failure and now I’ve fulfilled my promise to myself and to the people who believed in me and now I can sort of tip out of here.’
“It’s weird to say but I don’t think doing the track thing for 10 years and being to three Olympics is anywhere in the future. I think she’s going to do this for maybe a year or two. She’s going to bail out and run the company of a social media phenom, mogul.
“What’s that song?” Floreal continued, starting to sing ‘and I did it my way.’ And I think for her it would probably be a fitting end.”
A redemption song.
Davis on a recent morning after yet another rehab session spoke of the aimlessness and confusion, the depression that had overwhelmed her only months earlier. The sense of panic she felt was clear in her voice as she recalled losing her dreams, losing herself in the gloom. Since she was a small girl those dreams had given her a sense of self, a sense of direction. But for so long, from injury to injury, Athens to Austin, all that seemed lost in the darkness.
“I’m never going to be this track athlete,” Davis remembered thinking. “I’m never going to go to the Olympics.”
And then her tone changed with a satisfied laugh.
“Once I started doing well I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I am. Just kidding.’”
She was back.