ike many before him, University of Oklahoma senior Hayden McClain came to track and field from high school football. A wide receiver, he joined the track team to become a better and faster route runner. Funny thing was that he learned he really wasn’t that fast.
He continued with track and football for a couple more years before he made the complete switch to track and field. In his early days with his second sport, McClain noticed people practicing the triple jump.
“I saw people jumping and thought it didn’t look very hard. I thought I could do better than they were doing. And I did,” McClain explains. “When I quit football after my junior year, I was actually doing better in track and field. I really liked the fact that it was just me. I didn’t have to deal with how good someone else was at his position. It was about me and how well I jumped.
“I did have to wonder who came up with this event – you jump three times down a runway, then take off from the board and land in a pit full of sand. Very interesting combination.”
After trying the high jump which he learned he didn’t like much and eliminating the long jump as a primary event because so many people did it, McClain continued to jump through high school. He began to get looks from collegiate track and field coaches. Arizona had developed a solid reputation for producing triple jumpers and McClain had become part of that elite group.
“Bryce Lamb went to Texas Tech and Will Claye came to OU,” McClain explains. “I really wanted to leave Arizona. When I came to visit OU, it just felt right. I got along with my hosts and really the whole team. And I liked what Coach (Jim) VanHootegem said about my event so here I am.”
Where he is just happens to be on the way to the NCAA Indoor Championships in College Station, Texas, for a second consecutive year. The triple jump is scheduled for 5 p.m. Saturday with the 16 best jumpers in the country looking for that winning flight. Everyone involved in McClain’s journey hopes the second trip proves to be better than his first as he entered competition last year with a nagging injury.
“I got hurt last season and kept trying to power through jumps and competition,” McClain adds. “It finally caught up with me and I had three fouls at the NCAA. I rehabbed most of the outdoor season, finally returning to competition in April.” He didn’t compete again until the Big 12 where he found himself in a unique spot – not on the award stand. He qualified for the NCAA but finished 20th in the West prelims to end his season.
“This has been a special year for Hayden and it all goes back to his training in the fall,” head coach and event coach Jim VanHootegem explains. “This is his fourth year and he came out of fall training the healthiest he has ever been. He approached his training with an intensity I hadn’t seen before.
“We saw some of this near the end of last season. He was just starting to figure things out when he got injured. When you recruit a kid, you also recruit the parents, the family,” Van Hootegem continues. “Hayden’s family has been very supportive during the ups and downs. It’s how you handle the downs that determines how your story will turn out. Hayden has had the support during the downs for his story to turn out great.”
As his coach says, the first three years have not been easy for McClain. “There is that transition from high school to college and you are changing so many things. It has taken me 2-3 years to completely understand what Coach V is talking about at times. He wants the base work to be in place and then you work on the approach. Coach V is all about the run and the approach and I have finally learned how to fix that myself.
“The approach – if you don’t get the timing right, the steps right, if you don’t hit the board at the right angle, you won’t get your best jump on that attempt. It has taken me awhile to figure that out and now it is all coming together for me,” McClain adds. “I look back at what I was jumping in high school, then see where I am today. I never would have believed then that I would be jumping what I am now. I went from 42 feet to 52 feet and that feels like a bad jump now. It’s really wild that I am consistently going 53-54 feet.”
VanHootegem has seen the change and he has seen a jumper who has become one of the best in the country.
“Hayden absorbs everything in practice, then goes out and makes the adjustments he needs to make. He understands that there are good fouls. He has learned how to take a bad day of jumps and turn it into a good day. He now has the confidence that he will find a way to fix whatever is wrong,” VanHootegem adds. “Take a good day and make it a great day. Have a meet where five of your six jumps are among some of the best in your career. What he is doing now is very dramatic on paper when you consider where he started.”
McClain is headed to College Station in a great state of mind. He is healthier than he has ever been and the pieces are all coming together for him. In fact, his last competition, the Big 12 in Ames, gave an indication of what a healthy, tuned in McClain could do.
“I really wanted to repeat because when you win, everyone is after you. You have that target on your back that makes it harder to repeat than to win the first time. I wanted to repeat and, once that was done, I was going after the meet record,” McClain continues.
“Bryce had the meet record and that made the journey sweeter. He also had the Arizona high school record and I couldn’t break that one. I really wanted this one.”
Lamb’s record, set in 2010 was 54-00.50. McClain’s first four jumps were in excess of 53 feet. He had a foul on his fifth jump, a jump that his coach called a good foul that set up the record breaker.
“I just love the jumping area at Iowa State,” McClain adds. “You are off in a corner but there are a lot of people watching. You get the slow clap, common in jumping events, going. All eyes are on you and I really like it when everyone is watching, even between jumps. You get ready, then take off on your approach. After that, it is special.”
For McClain in Ames this year, special meant a meet record of 54-1.25 and a repeat title. McClain ends his Big 12 indoor career with a pair of second-place finishes and two championships. And that wasn’t his best jump of the season. His PR came at the Tyson Invitational in February when he hit 54-4.00 to finish third. That effort also moved him up to second on the all-time list.
“Hayden has put himself into a great place,” VanHootegem continues. “He has had three meets at a very high level of performance to put himself in the mix. He has learned to let competition bring out the best in him. He hasn’t gotten a PR every time out but he has had to accept that you can have a good meet even if you don’t PR. That may be on the biggest changes for Hayden.”
For this self-proclaimed (and confirmed by his coach) trash talker, there isn’t much left to do in the indoor long jump.
“Coach is right – I do trash talk my own teammates but only when they aren’t doing their best,” McClains adds with a grin. “I want them to know it’s not okay to do poorly. They need to care. I trash talk them so they will react in a way that helps make them better.”
“I’ve learned how to stay healthy. I have finally put all of what I have learned together. I want to come out of this meet healthy and head to the outdoor season. I love the outdoor season, I love the sun and I just love being outside. I am ready to close out in a big way.”
A football receiver who learned from track that he really wasn’t that fast has turned into a record-setting, two-time Big 12 champion for the Sooners. And to relax before the big meet – McClain will go find teammate Jacob Burcham and the two will use Google maps to find a place to fish. Those fish better be ready for some trash talking from a guy who gets it as a senior.