Coppin State grad Christina Epps has 'a moment to remember' to qualify for Olympics in triple jump

The coach who saw the potential in her when no one else did had told her she was going to jump farther than she ever had, and Christina Epps had no choice but to believe.

Thursday night, on a runway at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., in the triple-jump finals of the U.S. Olympic trials, the former Coppin State star had posted the hop, skip and jump of her dreams. But her first jump, her best jump, she said, was deemed a foul. So was her second.


By the fifth of six, she had not reached the 14.15-meter Olympic qualifying standard. Hadn't even come close to 14.09 meters, her personal best. She told herself, "You jump big. You're going to jump big," and after she hit the sand and prayed to God and saw the distance on the scoreboard by the track, her ticket to Rio de Janeiro, she thought of Alecia Shields-Gadson.

"My coach predicted I was going to jump 14.17, so the minute it popped up on the board, I was just like, 'How in the world did she know?' " Epps, who finished second overall, behind Keturah Orji (14.32), said on Friday. "That's a moment to remember. It's going to definitely go down in history and in the books."


Epps, 25, didn't sleep much Thursday night, all hopped up on the adrenaline coursing through her body and medal hopes running through her mind, but fatigue hadn't diminished her memory of how she had ended up in Eugene, one of three Americans now bound for Brazil.

Epps learned the triple jump only in her junior year at Morristown High (N.J.), about 25 miles west of New York City. She hit 39 feet at the state championships in her senior year, "which wasn't bad," she said, but also not early enough for college recruiters, either.

Coppin State wanted her for its track and field and volleyball programs, and gave her a full ride. Epps wanted to be a two-sport athlete with no postgraduate bills; Syracuse had offered only enough scholarship money to cover the cost of books.

"I said: I'm going to go with the people who are going to take a chance on me,' " Epps recalled.

In March 2012, she tore her left ACL. She gave up volleyball. She didn't know whether she'd ever reach 13 meters. "When I got the call, all I heard was screaming," her mother, Beverley, said in 2014. "A lot of screaming and a lot of crying. Her heart was broken, torn apart more than her [knee]."

The next year, Epps won the MEAC title (12.48 meters). In February 2014, she hit 13 meters. That spring, after her third outdoor MEAC triple-jump title, she reached 13.12 meters. Then it was 13.40 meters at the NCAA Division I East Regional Outdoor Preliminary Championships.

When she won the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in June 2015, she cracked 14 meters, raising her personal record and expectations for what she might do the following year in Eugene. She was invited two months later to the International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships, one of the top 32 triple jumpers on the globe.

The unnatural choreography of the triple jump felt natural, like it was part of her competitive rhythm. Pre-trials practices were "extremely good," she said. She floated through her phases, from her takeoff to her final leap, "without having to really try."


But slight missteps are a work hazard in a field like track and field. Her first jump was over 47 feet, she said, about 14.33 meters, good enough for first. Only her toe was on the foul line, or judged to be. Her next jump also cleared the 14.17 meters that Shields-Gadson had foreseen. That was a foul, too. Her 13.48-meter mark on jump No. 3 was her lifeline for jump No. 5.

"That's what let me know it's there," said Epps, who advanced along with seven others from the original 12-team finals field. "I felt [good] immediately on the first three jumps, and I was confident that I would be able to hit it again."

Her next attempt — 13.38 meters — was no improvement. But there was something about the fifth jumps in Eugene; Orji and third-place finisher Andrea Geubelle weren't at their best over the first four rounds, either. Epps' start was clean, her bounds far, and when she touched down in the landing pit, she tumbled over to her left, the side of the measuring tape, as if desperate to see how far she'd come.

"I did have a sense," Epps said. "I knew I was slightly over the 46-foot mark, and I was just waiting to see what the results were going to say."

What felt like "forever" was probably a minute-long wait. She was alone with her thoughts, she said, talking only to God: "Please, show mercy on me in this moment," she recalled thinking. At last, the figures came up on the big board. The wind assistance: legal. The distance: 3/4 of an inch longer than needed, about the width of a penny. She would be Coppin State's first Olympian.

"The talent has always been there," she said. "It was just [about] making myself believe."