His moment is replayed on a billboard-sized video screen at the
front of a sweeping hall in London's Park Lane Hotel: A pale,
slender man in blue singlet and shorts, his dark hair flecked
with gray, sprints the length of a narrow red path, jumps into
the air, skips twice along the ground like an oversized child in
a frantic game of hopscotch and lands softly in deep sand. The
announcer brays as the hall fills with music and then with loud
applause. On the screen the man leaps from the sand and runs
about in mad celebration. And at a round table near the front of
the hall, Jonathan Edwards smiles and thinks what he always
thinks: It seems like somebody else up there on the screen.
The occasion is a mid-December luncheon celebrating the Daily
Express Sports Awards, at which Edwards will be named British
Sportsman of the Year. But his emotions were scarcely different
on the clear, cool evening last August in Goteborg, Sweden, when
he shook the World Track and Field Championships by twice
breaking his own triple jump world record and by becoming the
first man to break the 18-meter (59'3/4") and 60-foot barriers.
After his second record jump (60'1/4") Edwards stood in a swarm
of photographers as Ullevi Stadium quivered in appreciation, and
he thought, This is crazy. Athletes just don't do this kind of
thing. At least I don't do this kind of thing.
Edwards does, of course, do this type of thing, having in one
remarkable summer obliterated a 10-year-old triple jump record
and so dominated the event that he now owns the four longest
triple jumps in history. But he has been so modest that it all
feels like some sweet, innocent dream--to him, to us, to his
He is a wisp of a man, a shade over 5'11", weighing less than
160 pounds. He has a miler's body. At home in Newcastle, near
the northeast coast of England, his training partners chide him
about his "woman's legs." Edwards, 30, is the oldest son of an
Anglican vicar, and if you were to see him in a tweed jacket and
corduroys you might think him not an athlete but a secondary
school teacher. His younger brother is precisely that.
May 12, 1996
Before last year Edwards had never jumped farther than 57'2 3/4",
and not much more was expected of him. "If you had asked me who
would be the first man to jump 18 meters, or 60 feet, Jonathan's
would have been the last name I would have given you," says
Jerome Romain of Dominica, who took the triple jump bronze medal
Nevertheless, Edwards did to the triple jump what Bob Beamon
once did to the long jump and Sebastian Coe did to the 800
meters, and he handled the heady experience with surpassing
dignity. He arrives in Atlanta not only as one of the
overwhelming favorites in track and field but also as one of the
best-liked competitors. "It's a bit of a cliche to call someone
'nice,'" says Coe, now a member of the British Parliament. "But
Jonathan is truly a ray of light in athletics." Says British
heptathlete Denise Lewis, "Track is an incredibly bitchy sport,
but no one criticizes Jonathan. And who could?" Even Mike Conley
of the U.S., the '92 Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump
and one of the most tenacious competitors in the history of the
event, says, "I can't bring myself to get mad at Jonathan. I can
only get mad at what he jumped."
In Goteborg, after breaking the world record on his first two
attempts, Edwards passed up his third so that Brian Wellman of
Bermuda, who jumped immediately after him, might take a clear
shot without distractions. Wellman had fouled twice and was in
danger of falling out of the competition. "He said to me, 'I
won't go this time, Brian, so you can concentrate,'" said
Wellman, who went on to take the silver medal. "Is that awesome?
We're talking about a cool guy here."
When the competition was finished, Edwards congratulated all the
officials. "Well, they work for free, you know," he says.
Edwards later sent a page from the meet program to Willie Banks,
the U.S. triple jumper who held the world record of 58'11 1/2"
from June 1985 until last July, when Edwards broke it with a
leap of 59 feet in Salamanca, Spain. On the page Edwards wrote:
You are the man who made the triple jump what it is today.
It was very exciting for me to break your record and I look
forward to meeting you in Atlanta.
Edwards walks out the front door of the hotel onto bustling Park
Lane and is rushed by two dozen people who have waited in the
cold for his autograph. He obliges them, penning his name with a
flourish as his fingers turn numb, and when he finishes he
climbs into the backseat of a hired car that will take him to
Heathrow Airport. In two nights, in Monte Carlo, he will be
honored as track and field's male athlete of the year (having
beaten out U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson, Ethiopian distance
runner Haile Gebrselassie and Algerian miler Noureddine
Morceli), and one night after that, back in London, he will be
named BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He will return to
Newcastle as the most famous athlete in Britain.
It all seems so sudden and so unlikely. The car sits idling in
thick London traffic as twilight falls over the city. "If it
were somebody else who had done all of this, I would hold that
person in awe," Edwards says. "But now, to be that person ...
well, I can't get my head around." He is silent for a moment as
the darkness deepens. "I feel like I'm in an armchair, and I'm
watching my own life."
At the beginning there was family, and there was faith. At the
behest of the Church of England, the Reverend Andy Edwards and
his wife, Jill, lived in London (where Jonathan was born in
1966), Bristol, Blackpool and Teignmouth. In 1976 they were
assigned to the village of Ilfracombe, a breathtakingly
beautiful seaside resort in southwest England, facing north
across Bristol Channel to the south coast of Wales. Jonathan was
10 years old; his brother, Tim, was eight; and their sister,
Rachel, was nearly two. The family would live in Ilfracombe for
Jonathan strolled through West Buckland School, a private school
19 miles south of Ilfracombe, excelling in every area. He was
chosen to be a prefect in the senior class. Athletically he was
a four-letter man: cricket, rugby, soccer, and track and field.
In his final season, 1984, he won the English Schools'
championship with a triple jump of 49'3". This he accomplished
on talent alone. "My memory is of not training much," he says.
He went on to Durham University, near Newcastle, to study
physics. He had little athletic ambition; only his father's
prodding kept him involved in triple jumping. "He didn't take it
seriously," says Andy. "I encouraged him to keep training."
Throughout his growth from child to adult, Jonathan's faith was
an abiding influence. The Edwards family studied the Bible at
night, and the children's social lives in Ilfracombe revolved
around church gatherings. When Jonathan graduated from Durham in
1987 and began working in a cytogenetics laboratory in
Newcastle, he looked for a church in the city. He found two--one
Anglican and one Baptist--and felt more at home in the
congregation of the latter. The Heaton Baptist Church is also
where he met Alison Briggs, a red-haired physiotherapist from
the Outer Hebrides, off the northwest coast of Scotland. Edwards
and Briggs were both in the church's musical group; she sang, he
played the guitar. They were married in November 1990 and now
have two children: Sam, who will be three in August, and Nathan,
who turns one this month.
In the summer of 1988 Edwards's faith and his athletic career
came into conflict. His family had always believed that the
Sabbath must be kept as a day of reflection and worship, so
Edwards never competed on Sundays. But by 1988 he had become the
No. 2 triple jumper in Great Britain. He was certain to make
the Olympic team for Seoul, but the national trials took place
on a Sunday. Edwards chose not to compete and became an instant
celebrity. Television crews showed up at his church the morning
of the trials (though Edwards had gone away for the weekend). "A
no-hope athlete, and suddenly I'm famous," says Edwards. He was
named to the Olympic team, anyway, on the basis of his prior
jumps. (In Seoul he failed to qualify for the finals.) Three
years later Edwards faced the same conflict and passed up the
world championships in Tokyo because the triple jump finals were
on a Sunday.
An inescapable parallel was drawn: Edwards was cast as the
modern version of Eric Liddell, the British sprinter and devout
Congregationalist who refused to run the 100 meters on a Sunday
at the 1924 Olympics, even though he was favored to win the
event. Liddell instead won the 400, and his story--along with
that of 100-meter winner Harold Abrahams--formed the basis for
the Oscar-winning 1981 movie Chariots of Fire.
The comparison with Liddell troubled Edwards. To him faith was
subject to each man's interpretation. So in the spring of 1993,
after much study and contemplation, Edwards began competing on
Sundays. It was a difficult, emotionally trying decision. His
parents publicly supported him but struggled with the shift. "It
made us evaluate our own thinking," says Jill. She imagined a
thrashing by the British media: "I feared what people would say,
with Jonathan changing his mind after taking this stand."
The decision "was very much between my conscience and God,"
Edwards says. It was not until a few months after he announced
his new position that he finally saw Chariots of Fire. "The
movie portrayed sports as something a religious person should
not do [on the Sabbath]," he says. "What I do in sport comes out
of my dedication to God. Maybe there was a conflict for Liddell;
I do not have that conflict."
The film left Edwards with an affinity for one of the athletes
portrayed: not Liddell but Abrahams, whose athletic vision never
wavered. "Single-minded, pretty professional," says Edwards. "I
warmed to that."
The learning never ceases. The summer of 1995 was sensational
for Edwards: He won all 14 of his meets, thrice broke the world
record and, not coincidentally, earned more than $400,000,
nearly four times what he had made in 1994. His appearance fee,
once $2,000 per meet, now approaches $20,000. Yet this sudden
success led Edwards to ask himself a question: Why me? "There
are many people who make a great deal of effort and never get
anywhere," he says. "What I've done puts me apart, and I wonder
why it's happened."
This question was never more intimate and anguishing than it was
late last spring. On May 22, three days after Jonathan's second
son, Nathan, was born, Jonathan's brother, Tim, the secondary
school teacher, and his wife, Anna, had their first child, a
daughter named Zoe. In early June doctors discovered that Zoe
had hydrocephalus (water on the brain) exacerbated by a cyst and
needed emergency surgery to drain the cyst. The operation was
performed two weeks later. As Tim and Anna sat in the hospital
coffee shop during the surgery, Tim read a breathless newspaper
account of a wind-aided 60'5 3/4" jump by Jonathan in Lille,
France. Tim recalls, "I said to Anna, 'This is positively
bizarre. Our daughter is 400 meters away having brain surgery,
and I'm reading about Jonathan's jump.'"
It was no less confusing to Jonathan. "Alongside our joy and
celebration has been their heartbreak," he says. In September,
Zoe underwent a second operation, in December a third, and now
she is healthy. A picture of Zoe and Nathan, doughty infants
leaning against each other, sits on a table in Andy and Jill's
home. "Look at them," says Andy. "You would never know."
And Jonathan will never know why the children's paths--and his
and his brother's paths--were so different. "You can ask the
question," he says, "but there aren't any simple answers."
On a warm midwinter afternoon Conley is sitting at Pete's Place,
a chicken-fried-steak-and-mashed-potatoes joint in Fayetteville,
Ark. Conley, 33, is the most imposing athlete ever to attempt
the odd mechanics of the triple jump. In high school in Chicago
he was a basketball star; his vertical jump is a Jordanesque 40
inches. He has also run the 200 meters in a world-class 20.12
seconds. Track and field experts long assumed that Conley would
be the first man to go 60 feet in the triple jump. "I assumed
it, too," says Conley. "I let years go by assuming it."
This is what other triple jumpers think of Edwards: He sneaked
up on them. The effect of his record jumps has been not to
demoralize his peers but to energize them. "You sit there
watching, and you think that if Edwards can do it, why can't I?"
says Wellman. "What does this guy have that I don't? Is he
blazing fast or incredibly strong or [able to] jump real high?
It's a wake-up call for all of us."
All of us would be "the Arkansas boys," as Andy Edwards calls
Conley, Wellman, Romain and U.S. jumper Erick Walder, all of
whom are living and training for the Summer Games in
Fayetteville. They are under the tutelage of veteran Razorbacks
jumps coach Dick Booth, the guru of the Edwards-is-vulnerable
theory. "I've got guys here who are faster and more athletic
than Jonathan," says Booth. "Now he has shown us what we have to
The bridge that took Edwards from 57 feet to 60 feet was built
partly in early 1995 when he spent a month in Tallahassee, Fla.,
getting into shape. He was recovering from a bout with the
Epstein-Barr virus, which had ruined his 1994 season. Edwards
began to tinker with his form, contemplating subtle changes. "I
was at a dead end, so I felt the freedom to experiment," he says.
Upon returning to England in March '95, Edwards, who had been
coached for a decade by Carl Johnson, also began working with
Peter Stanley, a 42-year-old part-time coach Edwards had
befriended while watching him conduct Sunday afternoon training
sessions. "We would chat about training, and we got along well,"
Edwards says. Stanley looked at Edwards's jumping through fresh
eyes and helped renew his enthusiasm.
Stanley had accumulated a vast library of triple jump videos.
One evening as Edwards sat on the floor of Stanley's den
watching a tape of Conley's gold medal jump in Barcelona, he
noticed an arm movement that he thought could assist him. He
folded it into his technique. Two months later, in a minor meet
in Leicestershire on a blustery day, he jumped 57'8 1/4", a
British record. Two weeks later he uncorked his wind-aided
60-foot leap in Lille, and six weeks after that he broke Banks's
Edwards's great leap forward was the result of more than
improved mechanics, however. For two years he had been lifting
weights with Norman Anderson, a legally blind 58-year-old
powerlifter who operates out of a dingy public facility at
Gateshead International Stadium, across the Tyne River from
Newcastle. The clientele at Gateshead is such that one winter
morning one of Edwards's fellow lifters was wearing a
"The local hoods love Jonathan," says Anderson, "and if
anything, they watch out for him." The Gateshead workouts have
given Edwards a toughness and a sinewy quickness. He can
bench-press 245 pounds and clean 300. He has run 100 meters in
10.8 seconds, not slow but not spectacular either.
Edwards's skills are a good match for the triple jump. It is a
strange event: The athlete jumps off one foot, lands on that
same foot, jumps again and lands on the opposite foot and then
jumps a third time into the sand. The event is awkward and
jarring--"The most physically destructive event in track and
field," says Coe. Triple jumpers routinely slow themselves as
they reach the takeoff board. "Self-preservation kicks in," says
Booth. "They know what happens once they start the sequence."
Most jumpers bounce along the runway. Each time they land, they
pause briefly but distinctly before making the next jump.
Edwards is entirely different. He runs full speed through the
takeoff board and barely brushes the runway during his two
landings, his plant foot snapping into the air in a breath.
Where others bound, he skims, and he never slows. "He has
mastered the concept of the skipping stone versus the bouncing
ball," says Stanley. "The others think they have things that
Jonathan lacks. But the way his foot strikes the ground is
magical. They don't have that." It raises the question of what
Conley understands. "There's no question I'm faster than
Jonathan, and I can jump higher. But nobody is quicker. That's
neurotransmitters, his brain telling his leg to get off the
In the summer of '95 Banks watched from afar as his record fell,
and he heard Edwards denigrated as a technical freak. It's what
they used to say about Banks, that he was slow and earthbound,
and he was. But he held the world record for 10 years. "This guy
Edwards, he's got the secret," says Banks. "He's figured it out."
There is one more story to tell, because for every saga of
personal and family sacrifice leading to fulfillment and Olympic
medals there are dozens of tales that end in hollow
disappointment. Four years ago, in Barcelona, that was Edwards's
He had gone to Spain in hopes of winning a medal, and his family
had made meticulous plans to share in the effort. Andy and Jill
arrived in Barcelona with Tim and Anna before the qualifying
round of the triple jump, which took place on Saturday evening,
Aug. 1. Alison would arrive that night and be driven to the
stadium, where she would meet the others. They would
congratulate Jonathan on reaching Monday night's final (a
foregone conclusion). Then, while Jonathan went back to the
Olympic Village, they would drive 140 miles to a guesthouse in
"There were even spiritual elements tied up in it," recalls
Alison. "The final might normally have been on a Sunday, and
Jonathan couldn't have competed, but it was a Saturday-Monday
competition. We thought, This is wonderful."
But everything went wrong. As Andy sat unaccompanied in the
stadium during the qualifying round (it took place on the same
evening as the men's 100-meter final, so tickets were scarce),
Jonathan jumped miserably and didn't make the final. Andy left
the stadium stunned, even as fellow Brits celebrated Linford
Christie's gold medal in the 100, and he broke the news to the
others outside. "I can still see the look on Alison's face,"
says Andy. "She looked at me as if to say, What have we been
doing these four years?" In the crush of humanity outside
Olympic Stadium they couldn't find Jonathan. "We just wanted to
touch him, to say, 'Hey, we love you,'" says Andy. Instead they
drove through the night to their lodging, arriving exhausted and
disconsolate at 2 a.m. "Five of us in the car, and I don't think
a word was spoken," says Andy.
At 11 o'clock the next morning Jonathan called his family. "I
talked to Alison first," he recalls. "I put on a brave face and
told her that everything was all right, when of course it wasn't
at all. Then my mother got on the phone, and I couldn't speak a
word, with the crying in my throat."
Four years have passed. Alison and Jonathan are sitting on the
carpet of their living room in Newcastle. "Hopes and dreams were
shattered that night," says Alison in her light Scottish brogue.
She smiles at Jonathan, who is holding Nathan in his arms. It is
a smile not of celebration but of knowing and survival. In the
time since Barcelona, they have grown and learned. Two children
have been born. Their father has jumped impossibly far.
In the middle of the floor, Sam spreads a bath towel at his
feet. "My sandpit," he chirps. Sam gathers himself, jumps onto
the towel and then rises, beaming. He lifts his arms to the sky,
and the bright glow from his eyes lights the room.