By Christopher Hunt
Jen Clayton has always kept a list in her head, a checklist of things she wanted to do. One thing at the top of the list was to compete at a world championship. Check. Another was to attend her dream school. Check and check.
The Suffern senior chose her dream school, even when it seemed like it would turn into a nightmare. Clayton, who leaped 20 feet, 5 inches at the Hispanic Games Jan. 9, made a verbal commitment to Louisiana State University two weeks ago. Her jump was the ninth-best all-time in the country and the top attempt in the nation this season.
“I always thought LSU would get me where I wanted to be and could help me become a professional athlete,” Clayton said. “It’s really competitive also, with all the competitive girls on the team. I want to go there and be the underdog. I want to have to work to get to the level that they are at.”
Clayton, who was named USATF Athlete of the Week, chose LSU after also taking visits to USC, South Carolina, Clemson and Auburn. After her trip to Baton Rouge, La., she probably shouldn’t have wanted to go back.
“It was the worst visit I went on,” she said.
It was raining when she left New York Oct. 9 and by the time she was expected to land for a connection in Houston, her flight hadn’t been cleared to land. Instead of running out of fuel, the plane was redirected. But when Clayton finally made it to Baton Rouge, her bags had not. She was stuck in the same hooded sweatshirt and jeans from Friday when she landed until she returned home on Sunday.
But on Friday her bag was the least of her worries. Clayton immediately headed to dinner when she arrived on campus but suddenly started to feel sick. Her stomach felt bad enough that she went to the bathroom and threw up. Her parents took her back to the hotel after that.
“I was shaking and everything,” she said.
But when Clayton woke up Saturday morning she felt brand new. She watched Florida beat LSU in football. She talked to jumps coach Todd Lane about everything from jumping and sprinting to what kind of sneakers she likes, football, traveling and even the clothes Lane’s wife forces him to wear.
“I felt like the coaches weren’t just going to be my coaches but they were my friends,” Clayton said. “I felt like if I went there I thought I’d be really homesick. But they really made me feel part of the family.”
Clayton first jumped over 20 feet as a sophomore when she popped a 20-0.25 leap at the NJ Metropolitan Invitational. She missed most of the winter season last year while she investigated an irregular heartbeat and hadn’t jumped over 20 feet indoors again until last week. But she enjoyed a lifetime best in the preliminary round at the IAAF World Youth Championships in July with a jump of 20-10.75, the 16th best scholastic long jump in the nation’s history.
Reach Christopher Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org.