May 8, 2012
Todea-Kay Willis knew that she trusted head coach Matt Bingle. And she knew that she liked the school's academic programs. What she didn't know four years ago was just how cold Minneapolis winters felt. The jumper/sprinter committed to the Golden Gopher track and field team before she ever set foot on the University of Minnesota campus.
"I just took a leap of faith," she said, a fitting expression for a long jumper.
To "leap" from her hometown of Mavis Bank, Jamaica, all the way to Minneapolis, Willis needed a long runway to pick up momentum. Luckily, she started her approach at a young age when her father would run around with her to keep her active. Willis started to compete in organized track and field in elementary school, and began to focus in on her current specialties during high school.
Along her path to Minnesota, Willis passed some important milestones. One of her most thrilling moments came at the Jamaican championships during her senior year.
"I was like, `This is my year,'' she said. "'I'm taking it this year.' I went out there, and on my first jump it was just like gold."
In fact, that jump marked the first time Willis sailed past 20 feet. Her leap of 20-1 1/4 (6.13m) won the event and reduced her to tears.
"My coach thought something was wrong with me," she said. "I walked over back to the camp and was crying while I was walking over there. The girls thought I was hurt or something. I'm like, `No, it's just tears of joy.' It was really, really a good moment for me."
Even after that moment of triumph, Willis had to take a step back to the start of the runway when she arrived at Minnesota. Not only did she have to adjust to the winter weather, wearing layers upon layers of clothing and scarves, but she also had a lot to learn on the track, and some changes to make to her technique. She competed in indoor track as a true freshman in 2009--a new experience for her--and redshirted the outdoor season.
"I had a rough year," Willis said. "But I worked really, really hard in the summer, knowing that, `OK, I'm not going to waste any more time.'"
On a rainy day at the 2010 Big Ten Championships in Bloomington, Ind., that hard work paid off.
"It was just a matter of staying strong mentally and just focusing on the process," Willis said. "That's what Coach always tells us: Focus on the process, and the results will come."
Results certainly came that day, as Willis became just the third Gopher ever to surpass the 20-foot mark. It was her first time since high school. She won the conference title with a jump of 20-9 1/4 (6.33m).
In her second outdoor season, Willis jumped even farther. She landed at 21-1 1/2 (6.44m) at a meet at LSU, and didn't find out until the post-competition team meeting that she had broken the school record in the event.
As a redshirt junior this season, Willis has won the long jump at every meet in which she has attempted it, including two performances of 20-1 1/2 (6.13m). She also leads off the Gophers' 4x100-meter relay team, which won at the Steve Scott Invitational in 44.95 seconds. In such a short relay, the lead runner must get off to a good start, or the race can be lost before the first handoff.
"I like it," Willis said. "I don't feel pressure. I am confident in the girls and our ability to do the job."
Willis will compete in both the long jump and the 4x100 at the upcoming Big Ten Championships. She ranks third in the conference in long jump this year, and the 4x100 (Willis, Nyoka Giles, Chimerem Okoroji, and Kylie Peterson) also ranks third. They are in position to contend in Madison, Wis., this weekend. Although Willis competes in both individual and team events, she does not view them differently.
"As much as I'm doing the long jump individually, I'm still doing it for the team," she said. "I'm focusing on. `How can I do this individually to help the team?'"
Now that Willis has almost four years of experience in the program, she enjoys mentoring her teammates and setting an example for them. She will keep her approach to practicing for this major meet the same as for any other meet.
"Still working down to the very end," she said. "There's always room for improvement, as much as you might win. I'm not necessarily comfortable with the mark. I'm not going to get complacent."
Ever since she landed in Minnesota, Willis has been working with that same attitude, stepping out of the sand pit and back to the beginning for another approach. Time flies by without much time to stop and sit still. For Willis, a long jump feels about the same way.
"It goes really fast," she said. "I always joke with Coach that someday I'm going to be able to just pause in the air. You can take a picture, I can wave at you, and then I'll land. It goes really fast. When I run and I get off the board, it's like time freezes for a moment, and I'm just hanging there, and I know eventually gravity is going to bring me back down. For a moment it just freezes, you're in the air, and you're just holding on for everything you've got until you land, and hoping it's a good jump."
Where Willis will land during the championship portion of the season is yet to be determined, but it's safe to say she feels the leap of faith that brought her to Minnesota was a good jump.
--By Justine Buerkle, Athletic Communications Student Assistant
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