There are times when scant millimeters are all that stand between joy and sorrow. That harsh lesson of life was never more evident than Saturday at the NCAA Track & Field Championship in Des Moines, Iowa. KU junior Andrea Geubelle fought off all challengers in the women’s triple jump and was jumping with joy. Even with her hands over her face, everyone knew she was only hiding a gigantic smile out of deference for her competitors. Little did Geubelle know that soon she would being hiding her face in her hands again, this time to hide her tears of sorrow.
The triple jump is a strangely unique event amongst the many track and field competitions based on ancient warfare. The hop, skip and jump, a casual name used in the past, seems better suited to a school playground. Yet, those three moves combined create a complex proven to be very difficult to master. One small mistake in any of three moves wipes out a jump. Unlike many of the tall, long and lean jumpers trying to stretch out as far as they can, Geubelle is a coil of explosive muscle. On some jumps, Geubelle can look as though she has lost all muscle control. Then there are jumps when it all comes together and that power explodes with a firework’s beauty.
At the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championship this past March, Geubelle ran down the runway and exploded off the board that marks the runway’s end. She combined the three moves into a leap that finished far enough down the landing pit to net her the national indoor title. Now, in Des Moines, Geubelle was out to add the outdoor title.
Despite the event’s complexity, the small wooden board painted white with a red strip at the end of the runway spells doom for so many. Even the tip of a shoe hovering above that red foul strip results in a scratch. An official seated at the board has only one task. Watch that board with a hawk’s eye. The red and white flags in the official’s hand signal fair or foul.
On Geubelle’s first jump at Drake Stadium, the red foul flag waved. Her second jump was a fair jump but only of a fair distance. One jump remained in the preliminary round. On her third jump, Geubelle flew 13.84 meters (45-5 ft.) to secure a spot in the finals where she stood in third place.
Geubelle’s first jump in the finals, her fourth of the day, was one of those fireworks moments. Measuring 14.32 meters (46-11.75 ft.), she now held a commanding lead. Fouls on her final two attempts did not matter. No one came close. The victory was hers. Geubelle leaped with joy. She took in the cheers of friends, teammates and coaches.
Geubelle is someone a person cannot help but like and want to see do well. She is quiet, yet always quick with a smile or a friendly wave and always gracious. Photographing her excitement, my hope was that my pictures captured her joy as well as mine. After photographing Geubelle in front of a display board with her winning mark, an escort led the winner and other finalists to a holding area under that stadium to meet with the media and await the trophy presentation. That is when things suddenly changed for worse.
I went to thank the official that arranged for the display board photograph. Turning to me, I shook his hand only to have him tell me that the second-place finisher had protested Geubelle’s winning jump. While the official at the takeoff board ruled the jump fair, a video camera positioned directly across the board from official revealed the jump had in fact been a scratch by millimeters. That relegated Geubelle back to third place. The event’s head official confirmed that ruling.
With all the NCAA event restrictions, it was impossible to immediately locate head coach Stanley Redwine or the jump coach Wayne Pate. Arriving at the media room, reporters from the Kansas City Star and Lawrence Journal-World interviewed the happy Geubelle. Coaches were not allowed in the area. It was very painful telling our media staff of the ruling, but that pales next to the task that unfortunately fell to Brad Gilbert, KU’s track and field media contact.
For a 23-year-old intern, that is a heavy burden and there was no quiet area do so in the cramp surroundings. In retrospect, outside of a coach, there really was no one better. Every track and field athlete is aware of how hard Gilbert has worked to publicize the program’s climb to one of the nation’s elite. It was a good friend that sadly had to bear the bad news.
As tears flowed, the reality of the entire mess struck many. No one questioned the ruling. Even by millimeters, the jump was a scratch. Yet. Why had no one from the NCAA informed Geubelle of the protest immediately? Could a review have been made immediately after Geubelle’s winning jump? She still had two jumps remaining. She likely would have approached the jumps differently instead of really trying to go for broke. Why was the video not reviewed with all the jumpers held on the field? Why, once an event concludes, can coaches not have prompt access to their athletes?
Pain, from which there was no escape, leads to needed change. Tears still would have flowed and joy would have become sorrow. Handled better, though, that scratch might not have opened such a gaping wound in the heart of a young woman.