‘My entire M.O. is have fun,’ says Tara Davis-Woodhall, the ‘free-spirited’ US long jump star

Skipping down the running track with a cowboy hat on her head and a grin across her face, Tara Davis-Woodhall hardly has the demeanor of an athlete about to win the biggest title of her career.

However, when the hat comes off an aura of focus descends upon the American track and field star and she produces a performance that is one of her best to date, a huge jump of more than seven meters to take gold and remain undefeated for the year.

That was several weeks ago, at the indoor world championships in Glasgow, Scotland, and with the gold medal came celebrations which were joyous and effervescent: the cowboy hat returned, so too did the smiling and the dancing along the side of the track.

It’s hard not to be swept up in Davis-Woodhall’s approach to the long jump, especially when she finds reason to laugh even in the heat of fierce competition.

“My entire M.O. (modus operandi) is have fun,” she tells CNN Sport. “I kind of just dally around and be free-spirited.

“When I sit down and focus, no one’s home. I’m not that type of an athlete. I need to be all over the place cheering my teammates on – that’s how I’ve always been in this sport, it’s the way to keep me energized and keep me going.”

The victory in Glasgow felt like a breakthrough moment for Davis-Woodhall after she had come so close to winning gold at last year’s world championships.

Davis-Woodhall celebrates her victory at the indoor world championships in Glasgow, Scotland. - Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
Davis-Woodhall celebrates her victory at the indoor world championships in Glasgow, Scotland. - Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Then, the 24-year-old had been in the lead until Serbia’s Ivana Španović produced the best jump of the year with her fifth attempt, snatching the gold and relegating Davis-Woodhall to silver.

To finish second in such agonizing fashion was bittersweet but also formative.

“That second place was a blessing in disguise,” says Davis-Woodhall. “I feel like it showed me that you can work harder … I love second, I love my medal, don’t get me wrong. But I had gold at one point during that competition and it was swiped right from me.

“That’s where it’s like: okay, now I’ve got to put something so far out that no one can take it from you again.”

Perhaps the experience has fueled Davis-Woodhall’s sensational start to the year, winning all four of her long jump events and producing an official lifetime best at the US indoor championships in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

And this year is an excellent time to jump further than ever before. Davis-Woodhall is now in fantastic form ahead of the Paris Olympics in August, though her mindset is to enjoy the occasion as she would any other event.

“Gold is number one, obviously,” she says, “but I just want to go out there and have fun.”

At the very least, Davis-Woodhall seems on course to improve on her sixth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics three years ago, confident that she has grown as a person and as an athlete since then.

“I’m turning 25 this year and being able to come into an adult version of myself,” she says. “I’ve found I feel more joy in what I’m doing now than what I did in Tokyo, (where) I felt like I was climbing up a ladder, just trying to get somewhere.

“Now I’ve figured out where I want to be and I’m doing what I want to do.”

Davis-Woodhall trains with her husband, Paralympian Hunter Woodall. - Michael Woods/AP
Davis-Woodhall trains with her husband, Paralympian Hunter Woodall. - Michael Woods/AP

There have been low points between the Tokyo Olympics and now. Last year, Davis-Woodhall was stripped of her national indoor title and given a one-month suspension after testing positive for THC, a chemical found in cannabis, marijuana and hashish.

Though not deemed to be performance-enhancing, THC is a prohibited substance under World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules.

“Thank you for supporting me and freaking being on my side, even though what I did was stupid,” Davis-Woodhall said on her vlog, “Tara and Hunter,” after the suspension was announced. “I was dumb,” she added. “I wasn’t on my ps and qs.”

Nevertheless, Davis-Woodhall is a popular figure in track and field. She and her husband, Paralympic sprinter Hunter Woodhall, have 775,000 YouTube subscribers to their vlog, which chronicles their sporting careers, their relationship, and their performances at track meets in the US around the world.

Her success has also earned Davis-Woodhall sponsorship deals – with energy drink Celsius and sportswear brand Lululemon – and at events her cowboy hat, if not her singing and dancing, makes her a recognizable presence.

“It kind of just made its little place in my style, I guess,” the University of Texas alum says about her now iconic headgear, “and it’s just lived on from then.”

Davis-Woodhall competes at last year's world championships in Budapest, Hungary. - Michael Steele/Getty Images
Davis-Woodhall competes at last year's world championships in Budapest, Hungary. - Michael Steele/Getty Images

As one of the world’s top long jumpers, you feel that Davis-Woodhall’s opinion and her voice matter, particularly when it comes to the future of the sport.

Long jump is one track and field discipline which governing body World Athletics seems interested in developing, such as by introducing a take-off zone in the place of a fixed board. That would essentially get rid of fouls and see an athlete measured from where they start their jump to where they land in the pit.

The proposal, put forward by World Athletics chief executive Jon Ridgeon in February, has received a mixed reception, and Davis-Woodhall is among those who can’t see it catching on.

“I think it might be a little silly,” she says, “just because you kind of take away from the principle of long jump.

“I have been trying to perfect this craft for a very long time now, and that is to get my foot perfectly on the board, no centimeters lost … and now we’re just going to take that away?”

Low-level and high school events, Davis-Woodhall says, may not be able to use the technology required to measure a jump from a take-off zone, creating a split between amateur and professional long jump competitions.

“You never know, change is good sometimes,” she adds. “I’m open to everything, and if they want to do a trial and error, see how it goes, that’s good.”

More important for Davis-Woodhall, though, is that she is enjoying her sport more than ever right now, feeling like she has ownership over her performances and her career.

“I get to be the leader of my own mind and get to do what I want,” she says. “Now that I have this, I’m just giving myself a chance. Doing that has opened so many doors, created endless possibilities.”

And with the Olympics looming, this year feels laden with possibilities. That’s even more true for an athlete like Davis-Woodhall, currently jumping further and with more confidence than ever before.

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