Former UF teammates lock step toward Olympics

When Christian Taylor and William Claye hear rhythmic clapping build to a crescendo as they taxi down the triple jump runway inside Hayward Field, it will feel like old times in Gainesville, only much louder, with much more at stake.

Taylor and Claye used to mesmerize their teammates at the University of Florida during practice duels.

“Practices at Florida were very intense, and you had to compete hard or you would not survive,” Claye said. “Christian and I used to start our claps and practice would stop around us and everyone would watch and clap and say, ‘Oh, what are you going to do? Show us!’ ”

Those steamy afternoons in the pit made them close friends and amiable rivals who have pushed each other to the top of the sport.

Taylor-Claye, Claye-Taylor — they often finish 1-2 in the world’s most prestigious meets. Starting Thursday at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, they will begin qualifying for the biggest stage of careers that are gaining altitude and acclaim with each jump. The July 27-Aug. 12 London Olympics beckon, and Taylor and Claye want to bring the triple jump back to fans’ attention, as world record-holder Jonathan Edwards of England did 16 years ago.

In fact, Taylor has been tapped by Edwards as the gold-medal favorite over England’s formerly No. 1-ranked Phillips Idowu, who has competed only three times this season because of injury. Edwards also put Claye in the medal mix.

“Having Jonathan follow me on Twitter is an absolute blessing,” gushed Taylor, who has studied film of Edwards.

Taylor made a name for himself with a Beamonesque leap at the 2011 world championships in Daegu, South Korea, when he surpassed his personal best by nearly a foot to record a 58-foot, 1¼-inch mark, the 10th best jump in history. At age 21, Taylor was the youngest competitor in the field. Idowu was second and Claye third.

Claye won the 2012 world indoor title in Istanbul; Taylor was second.

At the 2011 NCAA Championships, when both were UF juniors, they put on a captivating show, with Taylor taking the early lead, Claye snatching it back by half an inch and Taylor winning with a wind-aided jump.

After Taylor placed first and Claye second at the 2011 U.S. championships, they turned pro — a great decision for them and their event — the three-phase hop, bound and jump that requires a sprinter’s speed and a dancer’s technique.

“People like rivalries,” Taylor said. “You watch Usain Bolt and after a while you say, ‘Ah, come on, can somebody please beat him?’

“Will and I can get the crowd involved. We can raise exposure for the triple jump. Some people think it’s like hopscotch. To me, it’s the closest I can get to flying.”

Claye, 22, finished second in the long jump here Sunday (Taylor was fourth); he is planning to double in London.

“We are the young guys shaking things up,” Claye said of a new generation of athletes reasserting U.S. strength in the jumps. “We call ourselves ‘Top Flight.’ ”

Taylor, whose parents are natives of Barbados, grew up in Fayetteville, Ga., where he set high school records in the triple jump, long jump and 400 meters.

Claye, whose parents moved to the United States from Sierra Leone to pursue college degrees, grew up in Phoenix. His oldest brother, who played football at Cal-Berkeley, is a banker in London. His grandmother and two aunts also live there. He credits his mother, Saffie Tunis, for his success.

“We were in the trenches together,” Claye said. “I was the youngest, and my parents were divorced, so it was just me and her. I used to cry because she couldn’t afford to buy me Nikes.”

Today, Claye is sponsored by Nike. Taylor, the more outgoing of the two, negotiated a deal with Li-Ning, a Chinese sports apparel company. Nike must regret not signing Taylor, too.

Taylor helped persuade Claye to transfer to Florida under coach Mike Holloway after Claye’s coach at Oklahoma took a job at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. — where Claye is presently based. Taylor trains in Daytona Beach with coach Rana Reider.

“I was like LeBron [James] coming to the Heat,” Claye joked. “We had an awesome team.”

Taylor and Claye share a love of soccer — that was the sport they excelled in first — and a need for speed. Claye has run a 10.5 in the 100. Taylor has run a 10.6 and is also strong in the 400 meters (45.34), which he would like to add to his Olympic repertoire one day.

The two miss training together, but they have reunited at the trials, where they hope to take another step toward reviving American fortunes in an event associated with Willie Banks, Kenny Harrison, Mike Conley and Walter Davis.

“Will is like the brother I never had,” Taylor said. “We goof around together, go to church together, pray together — we sort of counterbalance each other.

“But on the runway, it’s all business.”