The 2008 Olympics were in full swing in Beijing, and Mitchell Watt was on his way to the airport – in Brisbane, that is.
While the world’s finest athletes were running and jumping at the Bird’s Nest stadium, Watt was picking up a friend when a text message informed him that Australia’s Steve Hooker was one of the last men left in the pole-vault competition.
Watt found a radio station and listened to the vault-by-vault commentary of Hooker’s Olympic victory. He listened as a fan, a proud Australian, without any insider jealousy.
“I certainly didn’t have any intention of ever being at the Olympics four years later,” Watt said. “I don’t think I even watched any track and field events in Beijing. That was the only one I listened to.”
Hundreds of first-time Olympians will compete at the London Games in July. But perhaps no rookie will have made as big a move as Watt, a 24-year-old from Queensland, who, after taking a five-year break from athletics, will be a favourite for the gold medal in the men’s long jump.
“He just didn’t know,” said Gary Bourne, the head coach at Australia’s national jump centre in Brisbane. “He had no real idea himself of how good he could be.”
Watt knew early that he was a gifted athlete. Growing up in Brisbane, in northeastern Australia, he won primary-school foot races by 10 metres or more and took home prizes in abundance from junior competitions.
“At my last meet as a high school student in 2002, the under-16 national championships, I won the 100 metres, the long jump and the triple jump,” he said. “But then it was probably a month or two after that when I decided to stop, and I think a big part of the reason was that I didn’t have a coach that I really got along with, and the guys I was training with, I wasn’t really enjoying training with them.”
He had been awarded a scholarship to a new school, the private and prestigious Brisbane Boys’ College, where rowing and rugby union were integral to the culture. Watt, with his excellent speed, played on the rugby team. One teammate was Will Genia, who went on to play for Australia at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.
Watt and Genia were named to Queensland’s all-state team, but Watt said he never thought that he truly belonged on a rugby field.
“The guys I was playing with had been playing since they were 5 or 6, I guess like I had been doing with athletics,” Watt said. “I always felt quite intimidated.”
After being accepted to study for a degree in law and economics at Queensland University in Brisbane, Watt left elite sports behind, focusing on his academics and his social life.
“I lived the normal student life, I guess you could say,” he said. “Went out two to three times a week, stayed up late, crammed for my exams, tried to do it all in finals week.”
So it might have remained if in 2007 Watt had not by chance bumped into Kane Brigg, a high jumper and former teammate. Brigg invited him to train with his group, then repeated the offer when he ran into Watt a second time a few days later.
“I’d put on a little weight and was going out too much,” Watt said. “I figured that at worst, I’d get to hang out with these guys a bit more and get a bit fitter. I definitely had no intention of ever becoming an elite athlete when I first went back to training.”
Bourne was working with Briggs’s group. He had once coached Jai Taurima, the Australian who was a surprise silver medalist in the men’s long jump at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Bourne was still coaching Bronwyn Thompson, a late bloomer who finished fourth in the women’s long jump in Athens in 2004.
Although Watt was unable to complete a basic sprint-training session when he joined the Brisbane group, he made rapid progress. In a local meet, he eventually beat Fabrice Lapierre, who jumped for Australia in Beijing.
So when Bourne returned from the 2008 Olympics, he was surprised to find an e-mail from Watt saying that he had decided to stop athletics again and become serious about his future.
“It’s so hard to make a living off track and field in Australia,” said Watt, who was complementing his studies by working part-time for a Brisbane law firm. “I was quite comfortable in this job I had. I hadn’t trained in a few months.”
Bourne responded with a long e-mail. Watt said he was moved by the message: that he could be something special as a long jumper, that he would have the rest of his life to practise law.
“It opened my eyes,” Watt said. “This guy who has coached Olympic medalists in the past wouldn’t be wasting his time on me if he didn’t think I could make it.”
It took only a year for Bourne to be proved correct. Watt won a bronze medal in his first major global competition, the 2009 world championships in Berlin.
“Look, the way Mitchell did it was not my Plan A, but he was recoverable,” Bourne said. “I was lucky, too. It’s easier to teach somebody something from the beginning than it is to change a technical model in an individual who’s been doing something for a long period of time. Mitchell was a kid who had not done much running training and had not really consolidated any sort of running model in his own head, and it was the same with his jumping. So I was able to teach him the transition from run-up to jump from scratch.”
By last September, with Bourne further refining his technique, Watt was favoured to win gold at the world championships after a fine season in which he broke Taurima’s 11-year-old Australian record with a leap of 8.54 metres. But Watt, with an inflamed Achilles’ tendon, could not fly farther than 8.33 metres in Daegu, South Korea, and finished second behind the American Dwight Phillips, the best big-meet jumper of this era, who won his fourth world title.
“I competed against him, I think, twice in the lead-up, and he looked terrible at both competitions,” said Watt, who acknowledged that Dwight had surprised him. “So he definitely knows how to do it.”
Watt, the young man who had quit long-jumping twice, was now in the unlikely position of being disappointed with a silver medal.
But then much has changed in a hurry, even if Watt continues his studies before becoming a full-time athlete in June.
Hooker, whom Watt heard about on the radio, is now a close friend and a roommate at big competitions. For now, only Watt has qualified for the London Games. And he saved the text message that Taurima sent after he broke his record in August.
“I’m so proud of you, Mitch,” it says. “Stay healthy, and you can do something very special in 2012.”
The New York Times News Service