RICK CLEVELAND: Olympic champion Brittney Reese returns to her roots in Gulfport | Sports


GULFPORT — Yes, track and field superstar Brittney Reese says, there are times these days when she walks the halls of Gulfport High School, she feels a powerful sense of deja vu.

“Not so long ago, you know, I was one of those kids trying to figure it out,” Reese says.

In fact, it was 18 years ago — 2004 — when Reese graduated from Gulfport High. There are other ways of seeing things. For example: For Reese, it was four Olympics ago. It was three Olympic medals ago (one gold, two silver). That was two NCAA championships ago at Ole Miss, 12 US championships and six world championships. That was before she became the greatest female long jumper in history.

And now, after a professional career spent traveling the world and covering distances few can even imagine, Reese has returned to her hometown, to her high school, as a coach.

“It’s time to give back,” says Reese. “I always said I was going to come back and try to give back to the people who have done so much for me.”

Reese is the new coach of Gulfport’s women’s cross country and track and field teams. She is also developing an indoor athletics program, for which she will be the head coach of the men’s and women’s teams.

Her mission: to help restore Gulfport High athletics to the powerhouse status the program enjoyed when she ran and jumped and her now-retired Gulfport coach Prince Jones coached championship teams seemingly year after year. year.

“We’ve had success in recent years, but not up to Gulfport’s standards in the past,” says new Gulfport Sporting Director Matt Walters. “Who better to show us the way than a local world champion, a living legend?”

You should know that Reese called Walters – not the other way around – about the job.

Joe Walker Jr., the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame coach who recruited Reese for Ole Miss, thinks Gulfport made a Grand Slam hire.

“Brittney has all the tools to be a great coach,” Walker said. “She knows the sport, has a lot of character and has always had the perfect mix of humility and ego to coach. She’s got what it takes.”

What Reese needs — what any coach worth his salt needs — are athletes. In Gulfport’s case, more athletes are needed.

As Prince Jones, the 77-year-old ex-coach, says, “When you load up a bus full of really good athletes, that makes you a really good coach. The key is the numbers.

To that end, Reese spent much of his early days recruiting. No, it does not recruit from other schools. She recruits from other Gulfport sports teams: football, basketball, soccer, tennis, etc. She believes that participation in track and field and cross country will help athletes in their respective other sports and vice versa.

It finds allies in this approach. One of them is Marcus Price, the new head coach of the Gulfport women’s basketball team, who says, “I told my girls that I wanted them to go out and learn everything they can of her. There are so many lessons these kids can learn from her about preparation and perseverance, as well as technique. I am in awe of her myself.

Reese, who is by nature quiet and reserved, doesn’t have to talk about a good game either. She is living, breathing proof that playing more than one sport is not only possible, but preferable. After all, Prince Jones once drafted her into the basketball team. She participated in basketball, athletics (jumps and sprints) and cross-country competitions. She was all state in all.

Indeed, basketball was his primary sport, even in junior college on the nearby Gulf Coast.

At first, Reese ran cross country, then sprints during the track season. But Jones was short on athletes in the field events and asked for volunteers to try the long jump. “I was looking for someone who could jump at least 17 feet,” Jones says.

Several girls have tried unsuccessfully, Jones says. Reese said, “Coach, I can do this.”

Says Jones, “I told her you were already running the 100, 200 and all the relays, but she said it again, ‘Coach, I can do it.'”

So Jones let her try. She jumped 17 and a half feet. I told her to try again, and she skipped 18 and a half. Suddenly Reese had another event, one in which she finally set a world record and earned the nickname “Da Beast”.

Reese thinks her versatility – she’s also jumped high – will help her in her training. “I’ve done pretty much everything and lived it at a very high level,” she says.

She also coached when not competing. Prior to returning to Gulfport, Reese lived in San Diego, where she trained at the Olympic Training Center and coached at San Diego Mesa Community College. She has also worked as a private coach for runners and jumpers.

It’s an old axiom in sport that not all great athletes make great coaches. The theory is that great athletes have so many natural abilities that they don’t necessarily have to work as hard on fundamentals and training. But Prince Jones and Joe Walker say Reese was a tireless worker.

Gulfport track team member Lania McDonald and the girls’ head coach, Brittney Reese, laugh during school practice. (Vickie King) Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Matt Walters, the athletic director, says Reese “got the upper hand”.

“Understandably, there were concerns about how an Olympic and world champion would react to coaching high school students,” Walters said. “She was extremely humble and really bonded with the kids. She went to every team on campus and the kids embraced her. She goes to college and even elementary school.

Lania McDonald, 16, who will race in both cross country and track and field, says she can hardly believe she will be coached by a former Olympic gold medalist from her own hometown. “I would be crazy not to soak up as much of his knowledge as possible,” she said, calling her new coach “down to earth” and “funny.”

Reese will also help the jumpers for the men’s team in Gulfport, because, well, why wouldn’t she?

Deavious Weary, 15, now races cross country but plans to do long jump in the spring and says he is looking forward to being coached by a former world champion. When Reese learns what Weary said, she smiles and says, “He’s got the rebound, I can see that. There is much more than that, of course. »

But that’s the problem: Few people in the world know more about ‘much more’ than Brittney Reese, who is also looking forward to coaching her adopted son Alex Wilde, who is a ninth grader and is currently training. with the Gulfport football team. Alex showed promise as a long jumper.

Reese made his final competitive jump at the Tokyo Olympics in June 2021, winning the silver medal, just 1.18 inches from gold. She turns 36 in September and says she knew in her heart it was time to move on with her life and knew where she wanted to live it – and what she wanted to do.

She says she is most proud of “my longevity, of being as successful as I have been for as long as I have been. I have been at or near the top of the world for over 10 years. I can’t complain about my career in any way.

As for moving across the continent back to Gulfport, Reese says, “San Diego was fun, really expensive, but really nice. But this is home. I have family and so many friends here. This is where I want to live. Every day I came back reinforced that it was the right decision for me.

Hattiesburg native and Jackson resident Rick Cleveland has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016.

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