Unequal footing in track and field: Jordan Gray’s fight for a women’s decathlon

Jordan Gray Female Decathlete
Kirby Lee - USA TODAY Sports
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This story is the first in a new On Her Turf series called “Groundbreakers.” The series will highlight female athletes who compete in sports or events that 1) are primarily contested by men or 2) aren’t currently open to women at the highest level. Today’s story features Jordan Gray, a decathlete who is aiming to compete at the Olympics.  

The false equivalency hiding in plain sight

Consisting of 10 events, track & field’s decathlon determines the “world’s greatest athlete.” The event debuted on the Olympic program in 1912, when track & field was only open to men.

Sixteen years later, women’s track & field premiered at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. While men contested 22 events at those Games, five were open to women: the 100m, 800m, 4x100m relay, high jump, and discus throw. (As the story goes, officials were so distraught by women running 800 meters that the event was nixed after 1928. Until it was reintroduced at the 1960 Rome Games, the 200m was the longest women’s race on the Olympic program.)

As is often the case in sports, when officials finally agreed to add a women’s combined event to the Olympic program, it wasn’t identical to the corresponding men’s competition. The five-event women’s pentathlon debuted at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It was contested at five Games before being replaced by the seven-event heptathlon in 1984.

Thirty-six years later, that’s still where we stand: men participate in the ten-event decathlon, while women compete in the seven-event heptathlon.

Decathlon Events

Heptathlon Events

100m

200m

400m

Not contested

1500m

800m

110m hurdles

100m hurdles

Long jump

Long jump

High jump

High jump

Pole vault

Not contested

Discus

Not contested

Javelin

Javelin

Shot put

Shot put

The women’s heptathlon and men’s decathlon are often treated as parallel and equivalent competitions. While there is nothing inherently wrong with a women’s heptathlon – or a men’s decathlon – the juxtaposition of these two events represents a false equivalency, one that has become so ingrained in track & field’s culture that many people don’t even realize it exists.

But not Jordan Gray, who in 2019, broke the American record in the women’s decathlon.

“Every time I tell people that I’m a decathlete or that I broke the American record, they’re like, ‘Are you going to the Olympics?’ And I’m like, ‘Nope, I’m a girl.’”

The ‘and’ in ‘track and field’

Gray grew up in Ball Ground, Georgia. “It’s one street. You blink and you miss it,” she says of her hometown.

The oldest of four kids, Gray comes from an athletic family. She recalls her father, who played baseball in college, introducing her to that sport, “From the time that we could hold a bat, he was tossing acorns for us to hit.”

She competed in a variety of other sports (from gymnastics to taekwondo), played five instruments, and dabbled in acting. “I was constantly in season for something.”

Still, it wasn’t until her senior year of high school that she found track & field. While nursing an ankle injury that she sustained on the basketball court, she joined the Heat Track Club. The coach of the club is Blane Williams, father of Kendell and Devon Williams. (Kendell, a heptathlete, competed at the 2016 Rio Games, while Devon, a decathlete, is aiming to make his Olympic debut in 2021.)

Gray first tried shot put and javelin because they weren’t as grueling on her ankle, but she quickly began running and jumping too.

Ahead of her first meet, Blane suggested she try the heptathlon. “‘Whatever [Kendell] does, just copy it,’” Gray recalls Blane telling her.

Gray was happy enough to oblige, but admits she was surprised when she learned some people specialized in just one or two events. “I thought we all did track and field.”

The following year, she continued competing in both track and field at Kennesaw State University. While she started out as a heptathlete, it was during her freshman year that an idea was sparked. After watching the pole vault (an event that is contested as part of the decathlon, but not the heptathlon), she recalls telling her coach, Andy Eggerth, “I’m going to learn how to do this.”

Her proclamation was met with a flat-out ‘no.’

Slowly, though, Eggerth warmed up to the idea. A year later, Gray got permission to train pole vault with the decathletes. A year after that, she threw discus (another decathlon-only event) at the conference championship. She reached a point where she was competing in nine of the 10 decathlon events.

“I was a decathlete because I was doing all of the events at conference, but I just never got to actually do a decathlon,” she explains. “It was a good three-and-a-half years that I trained as a dec[athlete] but never got to do one.”

That changed in 2019 when she competed in her first decathlon, which also happened to be the first standalone women’s decathlon national championship sanctioned by USATF. Amassing 7,921 points over the two-day competition, Gray broke a 19-year-old American women’s record and also recorded the third-highest score of all-time.

Gray recalls crying after finishing the competition and hugging the meet director. “For years, everyone had been telling me, ‘No, this is just for the boys.’”

Roadblocks to a women’s decathlon? Power, money, and tradition

There isn’t currently a huge campaign to trade in the women’s heptathlon for a decathlon. Gray says this is partly due to the people who are  asked about the potential switch.

“They mostly ask the Team USA women… And they say, ‘no,’” she explains. “Of course a lot of them to say ‘no’ because [the heptathlon] is what they’re good at. It’s like asking a shotputter, ‘Would you like all of the throws to be discus now?’”

Still, Gray doesn’t want to see the heptathlon disappear entirely.

“There definitely needs to be a transition period so that people who have worked their entire lives, who [have] the sponsorship money [from] heptathlon can finish it out.”

She has also heard an argument familiar to other pioneers for equality: the importance of tradition.

“I’ve been told, ‘I like the tradition of the heptathlon’… There are a lot of people who probably like the tradition that I wasn’t allowed to vote, but it doesn’t mean that we kept it. There are a lot of traditions that people really liked, but they were discriminating against another group of people, so we cut it out… I think when you’re going towards equality, there are always some people who aren’t necessarily going to want the change.”

Plus, it’s not like the five-event pentathlon was kept just for tradition’s sake. “If you told any heptathlete now, ‘We’re going back to the pentathlon, we’re only going to do five events now,’ they’d be like ‘Heck no!’ I think the same thing is going to be true in 60 years when we have women doing the decathlon.”

Assessing an uncertain future

In recent years, Gray has been forced to make a choice. Should she train as a heptathlete, the event where the Olympic spots and sponsor money are? Or should she pursue the decathlon, the event she is most passionate about?

Gray, 24, has chosen the latter, opting to prioritize an event with few competitive opportunities.

She’s aware of the tradeoffs. “I could actually be a better heptathlete if I stopped pole vaulting and instead did more work as a high jumper. If I stopped doing the discus, I would have another shot put day,” she explains. “But that’s not my big goal. My goal is to change sports for women and do the decathlon, which is something that I love.”

Ultimately, she hopes to see a women’s decathlon contested at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. “Hopefully in 2028, I’ll be 32 and rockin’ it at U.S. Champs in the decathlon.”

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Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
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PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.