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Olympics: Athletes take a leap of faith with Skeeter Jackson

TRIPLE JUMPERS REPRESENTING

HAITI, TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO GET

COACHING FROM STAFFORD GRAD

BY TAFT COGHILL JR.

Samyr Laine was a talented athlete with the tendency to over-think when he began training with Skeeter Jackson in the fall of 2007.

Ayanna Alexander was disappointed she didn’t qualify for the 2008 Summer Olympics when she joined them the following year.

Under the guidance of Jackson, a former Stafford High School star athlete, the triple jumpers have achieved their dream.

Laine will compete for Haiti in the upcoming Summer Games. Alexander will jump for Trinidad and Tobago.

Jackson, who trains them free of charge, coached the athletes at James Monroe High School and University of Mary Washington much of the spring and summer, as the trio now prepares to head to London for the Olympics.

“That is such a blessing,” Alexander said of Jackson’s coaching them voluntarily. “My coach deserves millions for the knowledge he has in the sport. I wish I could give it to him, but one day it’s going to pay off. That’s why we work hard out here. When we make it, Coach is going to make it right along with us.”

LUCKY NO. 14

Laine was an All-American at Harvard.

But his track career at the Ivy League school isn’t what has drawn the most attention lately.

A reporter from Bloomberg, a business news website, traveled from California to track down Laine at Mary Washington last Thursday.

Laine’s relationship with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was the topic of conversation.

Laine, 27, was college roommates with Zuckerberg. They remain close friends.

When Laine is competing in California, he often visits Zuckerberg.

And when Zuckerberg has business meetings in Washington, he’s sure to contact Laine, who lives in Fairfax County.

Laine was the 14th person to sign up for Facebook, the social networking site which now has more than 900 million users.

“When we were freshmen you could see he was on the precipice of doing great things,” Laine said of Zuckerberg. “The things he was doing with his computer, the stuff he already created in high school, he showed to myself and my roommates and we were like ‘Wow, this is some serious stuff.’”

Laine said when Zuckerberg showed him Facebook in its stage of infancy, “I was like, ‘This could be something big.’”

Still, Laine said Zuckerberg’s rise to become one of the wealthiest people in the world with a net worth of more than $14 billion, is startling.

“Him being Time [magazine] person of the year and 900 million users,” Laine said, “you could never see that.”

What Laine always saw for himself was a future in track and field.

When he was at Harvard, he competed against many of the athletes Jackson coached at George Mason.

Laine said his competitors told him Jackson was the best coach they ever had.

After Laine graduated from Harvard, he headed to the University of Texas for graduate school.

He competed one season for the Longhorns before he enrolled in law school at Georgetown.

He wanted to compete professionally while at Georgetown, so he turned to Jackson, who had stepped down at George Mason the previous year.

Now that Laine has completed law school, he said for the first time he can focus fully on his track career.

He has twice delayed jobs with a New York law firm because he wants to win a medal in the Olympics—for himself and for Haiti.

Laine has never visited the country, but his parents are natives of Haiti.

“They came here in the mid- to late-’70s,” Laine said. “I would say I was raised as a Haitian–American, as opposed to an American with Haitian parents. So I take great pride in my family’s culture and wearing Haiti across my chest.”

A TRUE TRAILBLAZER

Alexander was frustrated in 2008 after she missed reaching the Olympic standard by six inches, and her training facility in Baton Rouge, La., shut down.

Alexander was determined to find a coach, when she had a conversation with Laine and another one of Jackson’s athletes at a meet in Kansas City, Kan.

They told Alexander about Jackson and the McLean High School and Louisiana Tech graduate showed up at a practice session at George Mason unannounced.

“I hoped [Jackson] wouldn’t tell me to go home or leave, and he didn’t,” Alexander said. “It was just normal. He never turned me away.”

Alexander has since become the first-ever athlete from Trinidad and Tobago to qualify for the Olympics in the triple jump.

Her family moved from the country when she was 5 years old. But she still speaks with an island accent because everyone in her household does, as well.

Alexander said she had the option of competing for the United States, but “my heart is with Trinidad and Tobago.”

She’s a part of the largest track and field team Trinidad and Tobago has ever sent to the Olympics.

“When we step on that track,” Alexander said, “we all carry the twin islands on our back.”

AIMING HIGH IN LONDON

Laine is ranked in the top 15 in the world in the triple jump.

Jackson said he’s capable of jumping 58 feet and possibly winning a medal, but his first priority at the Olympics will be to make it to the second day of competition.

Jackson said the exposure of reaching the finals will open doors for Laine to compete in bigger meets after the Olympics.

Jackson said Laine is a high-quality athlete, but his academic background can sometimes hinder him. He said Laine often thinks too much on the track, even when it’s not necessary.

“Now I do want him to think,” Jackson said. “I just don’t want him to over-analyze something that’s really not that hard to do.”

Alexander is ranked in the top 25 in the world. Jackson said because the 29-year-old is relatively new to the world stage, her ultimate goal is to reach the second day of competition, and prepare for the 2013 World Championships in Moscow.

And if by chance Alexander or Laine wins a medal, the medalist is going to be sure to give lots of credit to Jackson, who said he coaches them voluntarily because his college coach once did the same for him.

“As up-and-coming athletes, we don’t make what the Usain Bolts of the world makes and Coach understands that,” said Laine, referring to the Jamaican gold-medalist sprinter. “I think he sees us as an investment. Ayanna and I are hoping that when we reap the benefits, he’ll be able to share it with us, because he’s done so much for us already.”

Taft Coghill Jr.: 540/374-5526

tcoghill@freelancestar.com

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