Back when Holy Names (Oakland, Calif.) senior Ke'Nyia Richardson was a sophomore, she was already one of the nation's top triple jumpers. Yet, she couldn't win a big meet.
At the North Coast Section meet that year, Richardson recorded an impressive jump of 40 feet, 7 inches but still placed second, 2 inches behind then-senior Decontee Kaye of James Logan. At the state meet the following week, Richardson recorded the nation's best sophomore leap of the year (42-2.75) but fell to then-senior Brittany Daniels of Merrill West by more than 2 feet.
All those near misses could have had a negative impact on Richardson's psyche. Instead, she used those experiences to become what she is today -- a UCLA-bound Olympic hopeful who is the nation's top high school triple jumper.
Even though Richardson spent the summer between her sophomore and junior years as the youngest member of the U.S. Junior National Team, she had never won as much as a section title. Remember, she had the misfortune of competing against two future Division I athletes in Daniels (USC) and Kaye (San Diego State).
Even when performing in the shadow of Daniels, who left Merrill West with the outdoor national high school record in the triple jump, Richardson made sure to worry only about herself, remaining secure in the knowledge that her time would come.
"I didn't worry about not winning at all," says Richardson, whose first name is pronounced key-nie-yah. "I was improving all the time."
"One of the things we always work on is to never try to beat an opponent," says Curtis Taylor, Richardson's club and high school coach for the past four years. "I might worry about that, but for the athlete let's just do the things we've been working on in practice. And if you end up winning or breaking a record, that's what we want."
Richardson might not have been winning as a sophomore, but she was putting up numbers that gave her confidence she could compete with anyone in the country. That confidence translated into dominance the next spring.
"She came out on fire in her junior year," says Taylor. "She knew she could jump and jump well."
That turned out to be an understatement.
Richardson won big as a junior, capturing the elusive NCS and state titles in dominant fashion. She first won the NCS meet with a leap of 41-6.25, which was more than 14 inches better than her closest competitor. She then went on to state, where she posted the nation's best mark of the year regardless of class with a 43-3.25, more than 19 inches ahead of second place.
She was just as dominant on the national level, recording the three best triple jumps of the 2006 outdoor season. Taylor might not have predicted such phenomenal success for Richardson, but he knew pretty early on that she had the necessary ingredients to be a great jumper.
"She had a lot of spring and she had a nice controlled run," Taylor says. "But the thing about her is she's able to pick up concepts fairly easily. She's a really good learner who was hungry to learn."
Richardson's ability to learn and improve was then showcased on the national scene last summer, when she competed against several elite collegians at the USATF Junior Nationals for a spot on the Junior National Team.
Each contestant got six jumps, and after five Richardson was in the lead with a 41-6.5. But by the time she took her sixth jump, Richardson had fallen to fourth place and was in danger of not making the team (the top two make it). Despite jumping into the wind on her last attempt, Richardson somehow summoned enough energy to record a leap of 42-3 to win the event and move on to the World Junior Championships in Beijing, where she missed qualifying for the finals by one spot.
That performance at Junior Nationals showed why Richardson is considered such a great last-jump jumper. Richardson's confidence allows her to never look at those last attempts as pressure packed. One of Taylor's assistants even compares Richardson to a great basketball player who can miss every shot before drilling the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.
"At the end, you have nothing to lose," says Richardson, who's also an elite hurdler and finished second in the 100-meter hurdles at last year's state meet. "You've worked as hard as you're going to, so you might as well put it all on the line."
And while Richardson is talented enough to make that approach work, Taylor would like to see some of those great jumps occur earlier in competition.
"It's a double-edged sword," Taylor says. "If you have big jumps early, you can make half the competition go away and that changes the whole dynamics of the competition. But Ke'Nyia always finds something extra. She has that special gift that when she needs it, she can get it."
As a senior this year, Richardson showed off those gifts at March's National Scholastic Indoor Championships (NSIC) in New York. NSIC might sound like a police drama on CBS, but it's one of the most prestigious national meets in the country. It's also where Richardson shattered the indoor national high school record in the triple jump with a leap of 44-6.75, breaking the 16-year-old mark of 43-11.5.
Fittingly, she set the record on her sixth and final jump.
With the indoor record already in her pocket, Richardson entered this spring season with her sights set on breaking Daniels' outdoor national record of 44-11.75. Having that mark in front of her was big for Richardson, who loves setting -- and then exceeding -- standards for herself. "It's really important to keep focused on your goals," Richardson says. "They make sure you don't get off track."
That's a lesson she learned well as a sophomore.