The decathlete and former Husky has fought through injuries at every step of his career, including a hamstring injury during his run to the Olympic Trials.
Four months ago, while every other Olympic track and field hopeful in America was either training feverishly for July’s U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene or prepping for the World indoor championships in Portland as a final tune-up, former UW decathlete Jeremy Taiwo was 1,200 miles away from his Seattle training base, traipsing through the Borrego desert in Southern California on a camping trip that he hoped at the time would help him regroup and refocus.
Making the Rio Olympics had been his sole ambition for the last four years, but as recently as March this year, Jeremy found himself limited by a maddening distal hamstring tendonitis issue that no one seemed to be able to fully diagnose or fix.
He didn’t know if he would be healthy enough to compete in the trials, much less the Olympic Games, and the uncertainty drove him crazy.
Jeremy Taiwo file
Height, weight: 6-4, 195
Olympic event: Decathlon
Personal: His father, Joseph Taiwo, is a Nigerian triple jumper who competed at the 1984 and 1988 Summer Olympics.
Twitter handle: @JeremyATaiwo
After missing out on the 2012 Olympic trials because of Tommy John and pelvic surgery, Taiwo had started to feel like his time was near – 2016 would be his year.
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Then, last summer, while training to compete in the world championships in Beijing, he injured his left hamstring. Just like that, everything he’d fought through in the last few years to put himself in a position to compete in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics looked as if it might have been for naught.
The irritating hamstring made it tough for Taiwo to stick to his training routine.
So, much to the surprise of his parents and girlfriend, when Taiwo’s life mentor called in March to ask if he wanted to take an impromptu camping trip to the Anza-Borrego desert, the decathlete packed up his stuff and figured, why not? His body was rebelling against him anyway. Maybe a week away from the grind would do him good. Maybe it would somehow help him find a way to get back on track and bring the Olympics back into focus.
For as long as he can remember, Jeremy’s sole goal in life has been to make it to the Olympic Games. This burning ambition was fueled in large part by the legacy of his father, Joseph.
Born and raised in Nigeria, Joseph Taiwo came to the U.S. in 1981 on a track scholarship to Washington State, and he ultimately represented his home country in the triple jump at the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games, finishing ninth both times.
Joseph Taiwo’s path to the Olympics was fairly straightforward in contrast to the meandering path his son would have to take 30 years later.
In 1984, while competing for WSU at the NCAA championships, the two-time Pac-10 triple jump champion caught the eye of Nigerian national team officials. They were impressed by what they saw, and Joseph was selected to represent Nigeria in the triple jump at the Los Angeles Olympics — no trials necessary.
Joseph earned a trip back to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul by jumping the Olympic standard at Nigerian national trials, and in between he competed on the pro circuit, plying his trade at an assortment of international track meets.
Right before the 1988 Olympics, he married Jeremy’s mother, Irene Botero, whom he’d met in college at WSU.
Even though Joseph’s athletic career peaked before Jeremy was even born, the son grew up fully aware of his dad’s athletic accomplishments.
For a project at his Spanish immersion school in fourth grade, Jeremy paid tribute to his father by creating a book chronicling Joseph’s Olympic journey. Jeremy wrote the narrative from a first-person standpoint, as if it were Joseph telling his own story. On every other page, color pencil illustrations painstakingly sketched by 10-year-old Jeremy depicted Joseph’s path from Nigeria to Pullman and then to the Olympics.
A longtime assistant track coach at Newport High School, Joseph would often collect Jeremy and his younger brother, Patrick, from their elementary school and take them over to the high school for track practice. The boys amused themselves by running off their extra energy, sprinting around the track as their father worked with his athletes.
When Jeremy was in second grade, he embraced track in a more organized capacity. Joseph taught his son to long jump, but would not allow him to try the triple jump until Jeremy entered high school because he knew firsthand how much stress triple jumping could put on a child’s developing frame.
“The triple jump is not good to your body,” says Joseph, who, today, is no longer allowed to triple jump because of a herniated disc in his back. “You have to really pound the ground seriously, and if you’re not strong, you could really hurt yourself.”
Jeremy won the 3A state title in the triple jump and high jump as a sophomore at Newport, and finished as the runner-up in both events his senior year.
Jeremy would later say that he’d always felt as if the only way he could live up to his father’s accomplishments would be to become an Olympian in his own right.
But even Jeremy concedes that his good-natured, even-keeled father never put those expectations on him. Instead, the expectations arose out of an ambitious young man’s need to live up to his own vision of what his father had been.
“It just seemed important because of what he did,” Jeremy said. “And also, he was my coach, showing me all these things. He’s always wanted to see me do well, and I wanted to do it for myself, too. I’m a perfectionist, and I want to be among the best in the world.”
From high school through college and onto the national level, Jeremy’s track career is best described as a confounding series of big hits and agonizingly close near misses.
He’s won championships at every level – high school state titles in the high jump and triple jump, a Pac-10 decathlon title his junior year of college, a U.S. indoor title in the heptathlon in April 2015 and No. 2 world ranking – but, often due to injury, he’s also had to forgo championship opportunities.
After winning his two state titles during his sophomore year of high school, Jeremy ended up taking his junior year off to recover from ankle surgery. During his freshman year at UW, he qualified for NCAA outdoor championships but could not compete due to the same ankle injury.
The following year, Jeremy finished second in the Pac-10 to decathlon world record holder Ashton Eaton, and once again qualified for NCAA outdoor championships – only to sustain a concussion when he tripped during the hurdles event, and was unable to finish the meet.
In 2011, Jeremy won the Pac-10 decathlon championship despite having to throw the javelin with his non-dominant hand because of a torn elbow tendon that eventually led to Tommy John surgery. He took a medical redshirt in 2012 to rehab and prep for his senior season.
Upon his return to competition in 2013, the same maddening pattern continued.
Jeremy qualified for NCAA indoor championships in the heptathlon but had to withdraw with a hamstring injury.
Still, anchored by his Olympic goal, Jeremy’s belief in himself never wavered even though there were times when he had to level with himself and evaluate whether he should push on.
“It’s the one goal I’ve had my entire life that I’ve thought about every time I do sports,” Jeremy said. “It was a thing in my mind to be like, ‘This is really hard, and I could walk away from it,’ but I don’t think I would have spent my time well had I walked away from it.”
Last September, after grimacing his way through the world championships in Beijing while nursing his finicky hamstring, Jeremy moved back to the Pacific Northwest. To save money, he moved in with his parents and resumed training with his college coach, UW volunteer assistant Atanas Atanassov.
Getting healthy was a struggle, especially because doctors couldn’t seem to figure out exactly what was wrong with Jeremy’s left hamstring.
By the time he found himself camping and hiking through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in early March with the man he calls his “mentor in life,” Jeremy had resolved to just block out all thoughts of track, his career and the looming Olympic trials for a whole week.
His mentor and hiking companion is in his seventies, older than even Jeremy’s father. The two men met when Jeremy was working at the Apple Store in San Diego more than two years ago.
His mentor cherishes his privacy and doesn’t want to be named, Jeremy said. But the man is an actor who, in his younger days, was also a gifted athlete, playing football and baseball, and earning a football scholarship to Long Beach State.
When Jeremy returned to Seattle after his camping trip, he felt different. Doctors still had no diagnosis for his hamstring, but surprisingly, in part with the help of a lot of physical therapy, the issue slowly began to resolve itself.
“I started getting on a roll and getting healthy and practicing more, and after that, the injury was not as much of an issue,” Jeremy said.
Jeremy put up the performance of his career at the Olympic trials in Eugene in July.
He set a new decathlon personal best in the high jump (7 feet, 3 inches) on the first day of competition, then set two more personal records in the 110-meter hurdles (14.22) and javelin (173-3). To cap it all off, he ran a 4:17.35 in the 1,500 meters to score a career-high 8,425 points and finish in second place, guaranteeing himself that coveted spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
That night, the Taiwo clan and their friends celebrated jubilantly at the house they’d rented in Eugene.
But when Jeremy finally arrived to join the party, Botero was surprised to see her son crying.
“Jeremy doesn’t cry, but he was so emotionally spent that night he won, he was just sobbing,” Botero said.
Making the Olympic team was “probably the most fulfilling thing to ever happen to me athletically,” Jeremy says. “It was really fulfilling because of how uncertain and unsure I was of this season going into it, and it felt fulfilling knowing everything I’d been dealing with off the track that had been affecting me – the coaching changes, finding support, being told no. Things like that. It was pretty cool.”
Now, Rio awaits, an opportunity of a lifetime for the kid whose biggest goal in life was always just to be like dad.
As the Taiwos sit at their dining room table on a bright summer evening a few weeks before Jeremy will depart for Rio, Joseph is asked whether he has any words of wisdom to share with his eldest son as he embarks on his first Olympics experience.
Pondering the question, the two-time Olympian looks fondly over at Jeremy.
“I just want you to go there, relax, have fun and finish the decathlon,” he said, smiling.