TOKYO — Three weeks after rupturing his Achilles’ tendon at a track meet in May, Christian Taylor was in a hyperbaric chamber when his phone rang.
Before his injury, Taylor had harbored big dreams: winning a third straight Olympic gold medal in the men’s triple jump, breaking the event’s nearly 26-year-old world record, stretching the boundaries of human performance. But now, as he coped with the reality that he would be watching the Tokyo Games from home, he was feeling the full swirl of sad emotions.
“My heart was with the Olympics,” he said.
When he answered the phone, he heard the familiar voice of Will Claye, Taylor’s one-time college teammate and the man he had so often edged for Olympic titles and world championships. Claye was about to reveal a secret, one that he had kept private for over a year: He had ruptured his Achilles’ playing pickup basketball in 2019.
“I’m back jumping now,” Claye told him, “and I know you can do it, too.”
Taylor processed the news. Claye had gone through 2020 without competing, and Taylor figured that Claye had taken a sabbatical during the pandemic to cultivate his interests in fashion and music. (“He’s got so many things going on,” Taylor said in a recent telephone interview.) But suddenly it all made sense: Claye had been grinding his way back from a catastrophic injury, navigating the same long road that Taylor now faced.
Claye’s comeback is culminating in another Olympic appearance and another long-awaited crack at gold. After finishing as the runner-up to Taylor at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics — and at virtually every global competition since 2011 — Claye, 30, is a favorite in the men’s triple jump at the Tokyo Games, where the final is on Thursday (Wednesday at 10 p.m. Eastern time).
“It’s going to be different without him out there,” Claye said of Taylor, “but that’s one of the strongest dudes I know.”
Taylor and Claye have been connected for years as the two most prominent and fearsome figures in their event, their paths and legacies intertwined — now more than ever.
At Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, Claye collected state championships as one of the top recruits in the country. But even as he dominated the regional scene, Claye kept hearing about another standout, a long-limbed prodigy from outside of Atlanta named Christian Taylor. Claye would regularly log onto DyeStat.com, a popular track-and-field website, to keep tabs on Taylor and compare their performances.
“I didn’t even know the guy,” Claye said, “but I was like, ‘OK, this is my competition. I’ve got to put up numbers.’”
They did not meet until 2009, when they shared the stage at the N.C.A.A. indoor championships as college freshmen — Claye competing for Oklahoma and Taylor for Florida. After uncorking a huge jump on his final attempt to overtake Taylor’s lead, Claye began to celebrate. The problem was that Taylor had one more jump, too.
“I think I set him off,” Claye said.
Sure enough, Taylor won the competition with a massive final effort. But Claye had made an impression.
“His confidence,” Taylor said. “You could feel his presence. You knew he came to put on a show, and you knew came for business: This guy is not playing around.”
A few months later, Claye out-jumped Taylor at the N.C.A.A. outdoor championships before taking an unconventional next step that shaped the trajectory of both men’s careers: He transferred to Florida.
“It was a K.D. move,” said Claye, referring to Kevin Durant, who has gotten a reputation in recent years for hopscotching among N.B.A. superteams. “I was like, ‘Man, I’m going where all the winners are.’”
It was the equivalent of signing with the 2016 Golden State Warriors (or the 2019 Brooklyn Nets): Claye wanted to train with Taylor and several other high-level athletes who were being coached by Dick Booth, one of the country’s most renowned jumping gurus. For two years, Claye and Taylor squeezed the best out of one another. Each day was its own competition.
“We were pushing each other on every level,” Taylor said. “Who was at practice first? Who was in and out of the training room? Who was hydrating better?”
Claye brought a level of enthusiasm to the craft that was infectious, Taylor said. If their coaches gave them a new drill, Claye would dive right in.
“Even if he was going to completely screw it up,” Taylor said. “I admired that quality: Jump first, ask questions later.”
Together, they began to establish outsize goals. No longer were they focused on college competitions. Instead, they were targeting the Olympics.
Claye and Taylor would go on to spend much of the next decade separated by fractions of inches, even as they went their own ways, training in different cities for different coaches. Still, the chemistry between them was obvious at meets.
“When I see him, I know I need to execute to the best of my ability,” said Taylor, who has won four of the past five world championships, including the last three. “He challenges me mentally to be in a different place.”
But triple-jumping is enormously taxing on the body — “If you watch a triple-jump video in slow motion, it looks like your leg is going to snap,” Claye said — and he had already sustained two stress fractures in his lower back when he injured his Achilles’ in 2019, which he suspected was a product of the cumulative toll.
Claye described it as “the darkest time of my life.” But the pandemic, in its own way, provided an opening by forcing an Olympic postponement. Claye knew he would have a shot at returning in time for Tokyo.
“For me to have another year, it was like, ‘Wow, God, this is another blessing,’” Claye said.
After slogging through post-rehab workouts — some of which involved running a series of 10 to 12 steep hills, he said, at an incline of 45 degrees — Claye felt prepared for the U.S. trials this June. Taylor, nursing his surgically repaired leg, watched from home with vested interest.
“I watched every jump,” Taylor said. “I watched his film as if I were watching my own. I watched how active he was on every contact. I watched every push. I watched every takeoff.”
Rather than appear hesitant, Taylor said, Claye was aggressive and confident, and he launched himself 56 feet, 5 ¾ inches to take the win and secure his spot at the Games.
“I think my biggest takeaway was that he looked like he was at peace,” Taylor said, “that he looked like he was enjoying himself.”
Popular among his peers, Taylor has been leaning on his faith as he works through the early stages of his recovery in Austria, where he has been spending time with his fiancée, Beate Schrott, a former Olympic hurdler. He recently shed his walking boot.
“It’s the small victories right now,” he said.
Taylor hopes to compete at next year’s world championships to defend his title. But first, he will watch his friend and rival — the man who has helped him believe that his own comeback is possible — chase Olympic gold halfway across the world.