For most of his career, Jeremy Taiwo has been weighed down by a persistent disclaimer, an ever-present “if.”
What athletic wonders might he perpetrate if he ever stays healthy? Track and field and everywhere in between, he can do them all. But only if he can stay away from the scalpel and the stitches.
The University of Washington senior shed the burden of forestalled potential early in February at the Boise State Challenge meet by scoring a world-best pentathlon score (6,156) and breaking the world pentathlon high jump record with a leap of 7-feet, 41/2 inches.
After 19 months of rehabbing from elbow and pelvic surgeries, the Renton native and Newport High product was on top of the world — world standings, that is.
“I was a mess last year,” Taiwo said. “So this has been a complete 180; people were surprised I did what I did, but I really wasn’t. I went into that meet finally healthy and I was ready.”
A few examples: In addition to the high-jump mark, he long jumped 24-41/4, and although built like a willowy jumper/hurdler, he heaved the 16-pound shot 46-6.
“He’s such a great athlete that there’s a handful of events he could probably do at the world-class level if he wanted to focus on them,” said UW multi-events coach Pat Licari. “He’s had a roller-coaster career, but he keeps coming back. He’s obviously doing it at the highest level, leading the nation by a substantial margin.”
A brief medical history: Two surgeries on his talus bone
(ankle), a Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, and a complex surgery to correct osteitis pubis, a painful pelvic condition common to jumpers.
Toughness and strength of will has never been at question for Taiwo – nor resourcefulness.
In the Pacific-10 Conference decathlon competition in 2011, Taiwo injured his right elbow, so he threw the javelin with his left arm just to get a mark. Basically, with little more than nine events, he ended up winning UW’s first decathlon title in 25 years.
But the pelvic surgery followed the elbow surgery in the subsequent year, and Taiwo was struck by the predictable wave of doubts. It meant he’d not only miss the 2012 UW season, but also the Olympic Trials.
“I asked myself, ‘Am I really meant to have this?’ This is how I’ve been defined for so long.”
UW sprints coach Raul Sheen provided the key to altering his perspective. “He talked about that, that people don’t see just what I’ve done athletically, but as a whole person. Track doesn’t define who you are. That’s allowed me to be gracious and humble, and whatever comes my way, track-wise, I’m happy for it. But I know I have other things, too.”
Other things? Well, honors as a Latin American studies major with a minor in global health, with the goal of someday running a non-profit organization that deals with safe health practices at the community level.
Taiwo has a family legacy of achievement – athletic and academic – to uphold. His father, Joseph, competed for Washington State and was a two-time Olympic triple jumper (finishing ninth in 1984 and ’88) for Nigeria. His mother is an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board.
“It’s always been expected that I do my best,” Taiwo said. “It’s always been homework before going with friends, and homework before doing athletics. It’s a balanced life, but really rigorous. There’s a lot of expectations to live up to, but I don’t think I’d have it any other way because that’s what made me who I am.”
His takeaway lesson from his career is that injuries can knock you down, but it’s up to you to decide if they keep you down.
As a reminder, he has a quote on his wall: “Nothing in the world can stop a person with the right mental attitude, and nothing on Earth can help a person with the wrong mental attitude.”
That proclamation, often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, has guided his approach to this season.
“I’m going to take my own time to see the chiropractor and get massages when I need them, and make sure I’m treating my body like a temple. I need to be smart about it.”
Smart, yes, and cautious. As the interview with him ended, he had to hurry off; he didn’t want to miss his appointment for an MRI on a hamstring he “tweaked” in the previous meet.
Taiwo presents himself as such an impressively talented, intelligent and mature athlete; a young man with a future far beyond athletics, out in the world where no one need ask about his physical health, and no one dare question his resilience.Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 dave.boling@ thenewstribune.com @DaveBoling