Watt ready for high voltage act

A reluctant athlete once, the long-jumper is a strong contender for the Olympic gold

top guns Mitchell Watt (left) with Dwight Phillips (centre) and Ngonidzashe after winning silver at the World Championships in Daegu last year.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 in the Bird’s Nest stadium, Watt was picking up a friend in his home city when someone sent him a text message to inform 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 recalled. “I don’t think I even watched any track and field events in Beijing. That was the only one I listened to.”

There will be hundreds of first-time Olympians in London in July. But perhaps none of the rookies will have made as big a leap as Watt, a 24-year-old from Queensland who, after taking a five-year break from athletics, will be one of the favorites 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 center in Brisbane. “He had no real idea himself of how good he could be.”

Watt certainly 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 came home from junior competitions with prizes in abundance.

“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.”

After being accepted to study for a dual degree in law and economics at Queensland University in Brisbane, Watt decided to leave behind elite sports, focusing on his academics and his social life.

So it might have remained if in 2007 Watt had not by chance bumped into Kane Brigg, a high jumper and former teammate. Brigg asked Watt what he had been doing. The answer did not include athletics. Brigg invited him to train with his group and 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 one of the coaches working with Briggs’s group. Bourne 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 had 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, and in a local meet he eventually beat Fabrice Lapierre, who would jump for Australia in Beijing.

So when Bourne returned from the 2008 Olympics, he was surprised to find an e-mail from Watt informing him that he had decided to stop athletics again and get serious about his future. “It’s so hard to make a living off track and field in Australia,” said Watt, who was already 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 of his own. Watt remembers it being 12 pages long. Bourne is not so certain.

“If you’re a Generation Y person, then three pages is probably 12 pages,” said Bourne, 65. “They don’t like to read.”

But Watt, a future lawyer after all, was deeply moved by the message. Bourne wrote him that he could be something special as a long jumper, that he would have the rest of his life to practice 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.”

Watt is smart enough to know that many a fine athlete receives such assurances. But it would only take a year for Bourne to be proved correct, for Watt to win a medal – a bronze – in his first major global competition, the 2009 World Championships in Berlin.

Bourne said: “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 September 2011, 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 meters. But Watt, with an inflamed Achilles tendon, could not fly farther than 8.33 meters 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.

Watt, the young man who had quit long-jumping twice, was now in the unlikely position of being disappointed with a silver medal. “Weird but true,” he said.

But then much has changed in a hurry, even if Watt continues his university studies on a part-time basis and will be taking two courses this semester before becoming a full-time athlete in June.

Hooker, the man in Beijing 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 still has the text message in his phone that Taurima sent him 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.”

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