Sylvan Hills High School grad and McAlmont native Jeff Henderson, 27, brought home Olympic gold in the long jump for the United States and Arkansas on Aug. 13, with a leap of 8.38 meters (that’s 27.5 feet!), besting South Africa’s Luvo Manyonga by a single centimeter. The effort was slightly off Henderson’s personal best of 28 feet. We spoke to him at Little Rock City Hall, after his return from Rio.
Going into the Olympics, what was your training like? Was it more rigorous than usual?
It wasn’t really rigorous. It was really just keeping the same thing from the trials to the games, and not changing too much during that time. It was just fine tuning in between that time. There’s not much changing we do around that time, just eating right, getting massages, making sure your body is good and your mind is good.
What was it like competing on the world stage like that?
It’s not really that different. It’s athletes you’re competing against, it’s just against the world. The crowd, of course, is much bigger. But you’re an athlete and you focus on one thing. You focus on what you have to do in your event and you’ll probably do pretty well.
How did you get into track and field and the long jump in particular?
I got into it when I was 15 or 16 years old. I started sprinting first, and then I got into jumping. I wanted to do less running because I never liked running at all and I still don’t. But then I got into jumping and got farther and farther into it, and it became something easy to do.
They say you won by one centimeter. What’s it like knowing the difference between gold and silver was that small?
A win is a win, no matter what. That’s in any sport. It feels surreal, but it happens in basketball, track. A win is a win.
What was your impression of Rio outside the Olympic venue?
Of course, every city, every country has a good area and a bad area. The part that we were in was pretty protected by the USOC and the IOC. We were protected very well, but of course if you go off of track anywhere, it’s not safe. Other than that, it was a good environment, a good venue. I liked it.
What was it like being on the medal stand, hearing the national anthem and knowing you’d brought home a gold medal for America?
It felt really good. I was one of the first gold medalists in track and field. I won the 999th gold medal [in summer Olympics for the U.S.]. So to bring it back home here to Arkansas and the United States, it feels like I’m dreaming. I’m walking in a dream right now. It feels good.
I understand that your mother has been ill, and wasn’t able to be there with you in Rio [Editor’s note: Henderson’s mother has had Alzheimer’s disease for over a decade, and has been bedridden].
The medal is for my mom. Hands down for my mom. I’m a mother’s boy, and she basically raised me when I was young — took me to all these sports events and Little League. So for her to go down and me to leave for the Olympics – it was definitely for her.
We’ve heard you’ve been trying out for the Kansas City Chiefs.
I’m going back to camp probably next week. They told me I could get some time off if I’d go back, so I’ll be headed back to the Chiefs here very, very soon. The coaches there all love me. They’ve all showed their support and let me do the Olympics. But I’m ready to get back and help the team.
Do you think you’ll be competing in the Olympics again in 2020?
I’m definitely going back in 2020 to defend the title.