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

Jordan Gray Female Decathlete
Kirby Lee - USA TODAY Sports

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




Not contested



110m hurdles

100m hurdles

Long jump

Long jump

High jump

High jump

Pole vault

Not contested


Not contested



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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2023 March Madness: Utah Utes engineer dramatic turnaround for third-ever Sweet Sixteen appearance

Members of the Utah Utes celebrate their win over the Princeton Tigers in the second round of the NCAA Womens Basketball Tournament.
Getty Images

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The No. 2-seeded Utah (27-4) women’s basketball team held off a pesky 10th-seeded Princeton squad on Sunday, winning 63-56 to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships for the first time since 2005-06 and just the third time in the program’s history.

“I’m proud of our team,” said eighth-year head coach Lynne Roberts after the second-round win at Utah’s Hunstman Center. “We set out to do this a year ago. We lost in this game at University of Texas and the goal was to be able to host (this year) so that we could have that home-court advantage and it made a difference.”

Utah’s fourth-year junior Alissa Pili backed up her recent second-team All-American honor with another 20-plus-point performance, scoring 28 on 8-for 13 shooting with 10 rebounds and going 11-for 13 on free throws. Sophomore forward Jenna Johnson added 15 points and six rebounds.

There’s been a lot of talk this weekend about how the Utes’ previous few seasons have ended – beginning with a rough 14-17 season that was cut short in 2020 due to the pandemic, followed by an abysmal 5-16 record in 2020-21. But the tide turned last year, as Utah rebounded with a 21-12 season that ended with a 78-56 loss to Texas in Austin in the second round of the NCAA tournament one year ago.

So, what changed?

“Last year, everyone was new to the NCAA tournament, so I think everyone was just experiencing it for the first time,” mused Johnson. “Losing in the second round last year, we’re definitely a lot hungrier this year, and then obviously hosting in Salt Lake, it’s fun just being in your own environment, to be around your own fans. I think it gives us an elevated level of confidence, both knowing what it’s like it play in this tournament and also getting to be at home.”

“Yeah, freshman year was kind of rough,” added third-year sophomore Kennady McQueen, who chipped in nine points Sunday. “We did experience losing a lot. … Coach Roberts, she said we are not going to have another season like that. We all stood behind her — the people that stayed — and brought in great people like starting last year with Jenna and Gi (Gianna Kneepkens) and people like that who have had a huge impact in helping us to where we are today. …

“When you get together a group of people that have the same goal in mind and will do make anything to make it happen, I think that’s where we have seen our success rate going up. This past offseason, we just kept getting better, and of course, the addition of the Alissa Pili really helped. When you bring a group of girls that have the same dream and same goal at the end of the year and doesn’t care about personal stats more than winning, I think we get the season that we have today, and it prepares us for deep run in March.”

In particular, McQueen believe it was Utah’s improvement in their defense that was crucial to the turnaround. “Everyone knows how good we are on offense, but if we can’t get stops, it doesn’t matter how good you are on offense,” she said. “So that’s just been a key the whole past off-season and all of this season — just getting better on defense.”

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Alissa Pili revives her love of basketball with record season at Utah

Roberts credits their defensive improvement with a “philosophical mindset change,” explaining, “We worked on [defense] a lot differently, a lot more intentionally. Strategically we made some changes of how we are going to defend, and I won’t bore you with that. But there was a lot, just different things because you have to play to your strengths. You can’t be a run-and-jump pressing team if you don’t have the depth and athletes to do it. You can’t be a zone team if you are not super big. You have to figure out what fits your personnel, and so that’s what we did.”

There’s also the undeniable impact of Pili, a transfer from USC who has found her stride as a Ute, where she recently was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year.

“She kind of is the straw that stirs the drink for us right now,” said Roberts of the 21-year-old Alaska native. “She’s a nightmare to defend because she can shoot the three, and she’s also really athletic and mobile, so it doesn’t matter who we are playing. I think you have to gameplan for her. But then with her three-point shooting, you know, you have to pick your poison.”

But Roberts also gave plenty of kudos to Johnson, whom she describes as “phenomenal.”

“She’s 19 going on 40,” Roberts said of Johnson. “She’s the most mature, even-keeled consistent player we have. What I love about her is she is who she is. She’s confident in who she is. She knows who she is. She also is incredibly busy off the court.

“We were talking as we were getting ready to watch film, just shooting the breeze a bunch of us, we were talking about movies. And she was like, Oh, I don’t watch movies. Why not? I don’t have time. I get bored. What do you mean you don’t have time? Do you watch shows? No, I don’t ever watch TV. It is because she is doing all of these other extracurricular activities.”

As for guiding to the Utes to becoming a championship program, Roberts still sees it as an uphill battle – but one that she and her players are ready for.

“I always use the analogy of pushing the boulder up the hill,” she said. “And doing things for the first time, you have to have that mindset. You have to keep pushing. It’s been incredibly fun to see the support, and I think the swell is a perfect word for it. Most importantly, our players feel it.

“This is why you play, right? And it means so much. I know I say it over and over, but this is not going to be a flash-in-the-pan [season]. This isn’t going to be a ‘Oh, remember that year they had such an incredible year?’ We are going to keep doing it.”

RELATED: 2023 March Madness 2023 — Updated bracket, scores and schedule for NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship

2023 March Madness: Updated bracket, scores and schedule for NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship


Editor’s note: We’ll keep this page updated, so be sure to check back here for winners, scores and next-round details as the tournament progresses.

The bracket for 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship is officially set and defending champion South Carolina earned the No. 1 overall seed for the second straight season. A total of 68 teams will see tournament action, beginning with the “First Four” games on Wednesday and Thursday, followed by Round 1 play kicking off on Friday.

On Her Turf has compiled the matchups, sites and schedule for the tournament, which culminates Sunday, April 2 with the title game from American Airlines Center in Dallas.

2023 tournament No. 1 seeds:

  • South Carolina Gamecocks
  • Indiana Hoosiers
  • Virginia Tech Hokies
  • Stanford Cardinal

Last four teams in the tournament:

  • Illinois
  • Mississippi State
  • Purdue
  • St. John’s

First four teams out of the tournament:

  • Columbia
  • Kansas
  • UMass
  • Oregon

RELATED: South Carolina nabs No. 1 overall seed in NCAA women’s basketball tournament

‘First Four’ game schedule

Wednesday, March 15

  • 7 p.m. ET: 11. Illinois vs. 11. Mississippi State (South Bend, Indiana)
    • Winner: Mississippi State, 70-56
  • 9 p.m. ET: 16 Southern U vs. 16 Sacred Heart (Stanford, California)
    • Winner: Sacred Heart, 57-47

Thursday, March 16

  • 7 p.m. ET: 11 Purdue vs. 11 St. John’s (Columbus, Ohio)
    • Winner: St. John’s, 66-64
  • 9 p.m. ET: 16 Tennessee Tech vs. 16 Monmouth (Greenville, S.C.)
    • Winner: Tennessee Tech, 79-69

Bracket, schedule* by region 

*Includes scores, game time and TV network, if available


Columbia, S.C.

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 1. South Carolina 72, 16. Norfolk State 40
    • 8. South Florida 67, 9. Marquette 65
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 1. South Carolina 76, 8. South Florida, 45

Los Angeles, California

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 5. Oklahoma 85, 12. Portland 63
    • 4. UCLA 67, 13. Sacramento State 45
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 4. UCLA vs. 5. Oklahoma, 10 p.m. ET (ESPN2)

South Bend, Indiana

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 6. Creighton 66, 11. Mississippi State 81 (First Four winner)
    • 3. Notre Dame 82, 14. Southern Utah 56
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 3. Notre Dame 53, 11. Mississippi State 48

College Park, Maryland

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 7. Arizona 75, 10. West Virginia 62
    • 2. Maryland 93, 15. Holy Cross 61
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 2. Maryland 77, 7. Arizona 64


Bloomington, Indiana

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 1. Indiana 77, 16. Tennessee Tech 47 (First Four winner)
    • 8. Oklahoma State 61, 9. Miami 62 (FL)
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 1. Indiana vs. 9. Miami, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2)

Villanova, Pennsylvania

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 5. Washington State 63, 12. FGCU 74
    • 4. Villanova 76, 13. Cleveland State 59
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 12. FGCU vs. 4. Villanova, 7 p.m. ET (ESPNU)

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 6. Michigan 71, 11. UNLV 59
    • 3. LSU 73, 14. Hawaii 50
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 6. Michigan vs. 3. LSU, 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Salt Lake City, Utah

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 7. N.C. State 63, 10. Princeton 64
    • 2. Utah 103, 15. Gardner-Webb 77
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 2. Utah vs. 10. Princeton, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2)


 Blacksburg, Virginia

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 1. Virginia Tech 58, 16. Chattanooga 33
    • 8. Southern California 57, 9. South Dakota State 62
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 1. Virginia Tech 72, South Dakota State, 60

Knoxville, Tennessee

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 5. Iowa State 73, 12. Toledo 80
    • 4. Tennessee 95, 13. Saint Louis 50
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 12. Toledo vs. 4. Tennessee, 6 p.m. (ESPN2)

Columbus, Ohio

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 6. North Carolina 61, 11. St. John’s  59 (First Four winner)
    • 3. Ohio State 80, 14. James Madison 66
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 3. Ohio State vs. 6. North Carolina, 4 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Storrs, Connecticut

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 7. Baylor 78, 10. Alabama 74
    • 2. UConn 95, 15. Vermont 52
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 2. UConn vs. 7. Baylor, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)


Stanford, California

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 1. Stanford 92, 16. Sacred Heart 49 (First Four winner)
    • 8. Ole Miss 71, 9. Gonzaga 48
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 1. Stanford vs. 8. Ole Miss, 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Austin, Texas 

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 5. Louisville 83, 12. Drake 81
    • 4. Texas 79, 13. East Carolina 40
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 4. Texas vs. 5. Louisville, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Durham, N.C. 

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 6. Colorado 82, 11. Middle Tennessee State 60
    • 3. Duke 89, 14. Iona 49
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 3. Duke vs. Colorado, 9 p.m. ET (ESPNU)

Iowa City, Iowa 

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 7. Florida State 54, 10. Georgia 66
    • 2. Iowa 95, 15. Southeastern Louisiana 43
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 2. Iowa 74, 10. Georgia 66

Regionals/Final Four schedule, how to watch

Sweet 16: Friday and Saturday, March 24-25; Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Greenville, S.C., host: Southern Conference and Furman; and Climate Pledge Arena, Seattle, hosts: Seattle and Seattle Sports Commission

Elite 8: Sunday and Monday, March 26-27; Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Greenville, S.C., host: Southern Conference and Furman; and Climate Pledge Arena, Seattle, hosts: Seattle and Seattle Sports Commission

Final 4: Friday, March 31, 7 p.m. ET and 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN); American Airlines Center, Dallas; hosts: Big 12 Conference and Dallas Sports Commission

Championship Game: Sunday, April 2, 3 p.m. ET (ABC); American Airlines Center, Dallas; hosts: Big 12 Conference and Dallas Sports Commission

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: 2023 March Madness — All about the 32 automatic qualifiers