Keturah Orji is leaping past records while challenging norms

Keturah Orji
Getty Images

Author’s Note: Keturah Orji – nicknamed KO – is the American record holder in the women’s triple jump. On Sunday at U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon, Orji will look to secure her spot on a second Olympic team. At the Tokyo Olympics, Orji could become the first American woman to win an Olympic triple jump medal.

As a sophomore at Mount Olive high school in New Jersey, Keturah Orji (pronounced kuh-TOR-uh) didn’t have a lot of free time during track meets. She typically entered five individual events: the 100m, 200m, 400m, high jump, and long jump.

But on a bus ride to one of Mount Olive’s first dual meets of the 2012 season, Orji approached her coach, Vanessa Benfatti, with a proposition.

“Keturah hated the 400m and I’m using the word ‘hate’ very strongly here,” Benfatti recalled. “Because she’s a brainiac, she said to me, ‘If I do the triple jump, and I win it, isn’t it the same thing as if I win the 400?'”

After some back-and-forth, Benfatti agreed that Orji could try the triple jump that day.

“It came to me really naturally,” Orji said. “I had just seen people do it, and replicated what I saw. And on my first attempt, I almost broke the school record.”

It only took her two more tries. With her third attempt – a leap of 39-2 1/4 feet (11.94 meters) – the school record was hers.

“I looked at my assistant, and he looked at me, and it was one of those incredible ‘Aha!’ moments,” Benfatti said.

Needless to say, Orji made her point.

She graduated two years later as a three-time high school outdoor national champion (two in triple jump, one in long jump).

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Stronger than ever, Simone Manuel is being asked to carry unfair burden

The first great American female triple jumper

At most Olympics since women’s triple jump debuted in 1996, the U.S.  didn’t have more than one or two athletes who achieved the international standard required to compete at the Games. Heading into the 2016 Rio Olympics, the best American finisher in women’s triple jump was Sheila Hudson, who placed 10th in 1996.

So there weren’t any posters of American triple jumpers in Orji’s childhood bedroom. Instead, she had a poster of Brittney Reese, a two-time Olympic medalist in long jump, who Orji now trains alongside in Chula Vista, California.

Orji said she is motivated by the idea of wanting to “put America on the map for women’s triple jump.”

Five years ago, she was less ambitious about her goals, which can be seen in a letter she wrote herself after she qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“I told myself, ‘It would be great to come top 10, but if you can pull out top five, that would be amazing,'” she said. ‘When I read it after the Olympics I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I got fourth!'”

Orji might have been the happiest fourth-place finisher at the Rio Games, where she broke her own American record in the final (14.71 meters). “I was really happy with how I performed there even though I missed out on a medal by one inch,” she said.

Looking ahead to this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, however, Orji has the podium in sight. And the significance of that is not lost on her.

“If I do, I’ll be the first American to win a medal in women’s triple jump.”

RELATED: 100 ways women can make Olympic and Paralympic history (No. 31-40)

The art of the triple jump

There are three components to the triple jump: the hop, the step (or skip) and the jump.

“People always think that if you’re faster, you’ll jump further. But you have to be able to control your speed in triple jump,” Orji said. “Sometimes, a slower person can jump farther if they’re more technical.”

Triple jump is also extremely hard on the body.

“The amount of force you put into the ground, it’s a lot.”

Like, a lot.

During the landing between the hop and the step, triple jumpers absorb close to 15 times their bodyweight on one leg as they take off from the ground.

“It’s not something you can do every week and preserve your body.” To limit the impact, Orji and other elite triple jumpers don’t often practice the full event.

In training, “it’s very rare that you’re actually jumping from a full approach,” Orji said. “My full approach in competition is 18 steps, but in practice, the most I’ll probably do is 8-10 steps.”

Once she gets to competition, Orji doesn’t just rely on the measuring tape to tell her if she had a good jump.

“My best jumps always feel the most floaty,” she said.

Earlier this year, Orji reclaimed the American record from Tori Franklin, jumping 14.92 meters at her first meet of the season.

Heading towards Tokyo, she’s aiming for 15 meters, a goal she printed out and taped to the ceiling above her bed.

“It’s an important barrier to eclipse for most female triple jumpers,” she said. “And it would be great to jump further than that.”

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Katie Ledecky just qualified for one of the toughest doubles in Olympic history

Orji’s challenge to the sports marketing world

It’s no secret that women in sports, and especially women of color, don’t receive equitable treatment and promotion.

By showing up at the track as her authentic self, Orji wants to elevate the conversation about the way women are marketed.

“I don’t think women should be undervalued or not get as much publicity because they don’t choose to put on a whole face [of makeup],” she said.

“A lot of women have the nails done, the eyelashes, the long hair… and that’s fine. But it shouldn’t be expected of women to look that way.

“When men go out and compete… they may get a haircut, but other than that, their performance speaks for them.”

Orji knows that the issue of who is getting publicity – and who isn’t – is also exacerbated by a product of racism: colorism, a form of discrimination that favors people with lighter skin over those with darker skin.

“I feel like people who are lighter skinned… they usually get more publicity.”

And because publicity leads to followers, and followers lead to market value, “they’re probably paid more,” Orji said. “Darker skinned athletes, they’ve seen the difference.”

Orji often discusses her thoughts on racial justice, financial planning, and her favorite books on her blog, which she spends time writing when she isn’t training or taking classes towards her Masters’ in accounting.

Watch Keturah Orji compete at U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials: Broadcast and Streaming Schedule

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC