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Olympic couple Tara Davis and Hunter Woodhall define a generation of social-savvy athletes

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When Tara Davis realized she had qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in the long jump, she ran straight to the stands at Hayward Field and into the waiting arms of her boyfriend, Hunter Woodhall. In matching cowboy hats, the pair celebrated that they would both be heading to Japan to compete on the biggest stage in sports.

Davis placed second at the U.S. Olympic Trials with a jump of 7.04 meters, and this summers’ Games will be her first. Woodhall, who had both legs amputated when he was an infant, is a Paralympic veteran. He competed in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, and he brought home a silver medal in the 200 meters and bronze in the 400 meters. This year, he is qualified to compete in both the 400 and 100 meters.

"I know it sounds cliche, but for us looking back and seeing everything that we've both been through up to this point, it's just a pinnacle moment," Woodhall said "It's payoff for all the hard work we've done, and I just don't think it would be the same if it was one of us or the other."

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Videos and photos of Davis and Woodhall’s heartwarming moment at the U.S. Olympic Trials went viral. Davis’ original Instagram post of the pair hugging garnered over 91,600 likes and the video Woodhall shared on Tiktok currently has more than 1.8 million views. The posts were also shared across social media by major sports brands, including NBC Olympics, Team USA, Togethxr and Citius Mag.

"We were walking through the airport, and this woman was like, 'Are you that couple that’s going to the Olympics? I saw you on YouTube.' " Davis said. "When normal people just out and about talk to us and tell us that we’ve impacted their lives in some positive way, it’s really mind-boggling."

The sudden burst of publicity has been an opportunity for both athletes to build on the platforms and personal brands that they have created over the course of their track and field careers.

Woodhall has a particularly notable following of more than 2.6 million on TikTok, but he also has 258,000 followers on Instagram. Davis has more than 211,000 on Instagram and 166,900 on TikTok. The pair also shares a YouTube channel, Hunter and Tara, which has more than 274,000 subscribers.

Thilo Kunkel, director of the Sport Industry Research Center at Temple University, said having a multi-platform audience is one of the best things athletes can do to build a strong social media brand.

"Instagram could change the algorithm tomorrow, and we've seen that in the past," Kunkel said. "Over the last year, Instagram changed their algorithm so right now you don't reach 100% of your Instagram following because Instagram wants you to invest in sponsored content. What we often hear is "I am focused on one platform.' Your followers are not your property there. They're the property of Instagram, and those aspects really matter."

Both Woodhall and Davis started the year as collegiate athletes and they have since decided to forgo their remaining NCAA eligibility to become professional track and field athletes. They announced July 12 that they both signed sponsorship deals with athleticwear brand Champion.

Woodhall, who ran at the University of Arkansas, went pro in February, but Davis wanted to complete a full indoor and outdoor collegiate season with the Texas Longhorns before leaving the NCAA. Davis spent her first year at the University of Georgia, but a contentious transfer left her unable to compete in 2019, and COVID-19 cut her attempted comeback in 2020 short.

Woodhall was a four-time All-American at Arkansas, and Davis thrived in her final collegiate season, setting the collegiate record and winning an NCAA title in long jump. However, the pair decided to go pro largely because the NCAA did not allow athletes the ability to monetize their name, image and likeness.

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The NCAA decided to remove its restrictions on athletes' use of their name, image and likeness as of July 1, and while Davis said she would have gone pro at the end of her season either way, Woodhall isn’t sure whether he would have completed the 2021 collegiate season if the change had happened sooner.

"I really didn't agree with how they were treating their athletes and how the NCAA was set up. I just really didn't want to align with that," Woodhall said. "I am so unbelievably proud and excited how roles have now changed, and athletes have this ability to really use their brand and accelerate their careers and lives starting in college."

The pair often makes content for social media together, especially for their YouTube channel, and they said the 'golden couple' image that they portray online is an accurate reflection of their relationship in real life. Woodhall said the couple prioritizes authenticity in their content, which has allowed them to connect with so many followers who come from outside of their athletic fanbase.

"We're very genuine with everything we do. Some videos, we’ll be honest if we're not having a good day," he said. "We portray a strong message. We came from humble beginnings. We don't have a problem showing people who we really are, and I think people can relate to that."

Amid their intense training regimens and college coursework, the couple has found a rhythm in producing social media content over the last four years of their relationship. Both post at least once a week on Instagram, several times a week on TikTok and about twice a month on YouTube. Woodhall said YouTube is his favorite platform, and he taught himself how to use Final Cut Pro to edit all of their videos. Davis, on the other hand, said she prefers the informal, raw nature of Snapchat, where she has more than 85,000 subscribers.

While both Woodhall and Davis said they enjoy maintaining a presence on social media, Woodhall said it comes with challenges that older generations of athletes did not have.

"One of the biggest things is the mental battle, and with opportunities also comes responsibilities," Woodhall said. "The amount we have to travel, the amount of things we have to move around, the sacrifices that we have to make, that's the flip side of that coin that no one really sees."

In addition to their Champion sponsorship, Woodhall and Davis are both partnered with exercise equipment brand Nordic Track, and Woodhall recently appeared in a commercial for food ordering and delivery company GrubHub. He is also sponsored by the athletic prosthetic brand Ossur. On top of it all, they are in the final stretch of preparation for the Tokyo Games and are also planning to move in together after they get home from Japan.

"We have a lot of different audiences, and obviously not all of them are track (fans)," Davis said. "Some are 50-year-old women. Some are 14-year-old kids who just saw some TikTok. When we have those audiences, we share what we do, so they go to watch us at the meets. I feel like us growing [a platform] can help us grow the sport."

Contact Emily Adams at eaadams@gannett.com or on Twitter @eaadams6.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Olympic couple Tara Davis, Hunter Woodhall rep social-savvy future