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National Track & Field Hall of Fame Q&A: Dwight Phillips


In advance of the National Track & Field Hall of Fame induction ceremony on December 1 at USATF Night of Legends, USATF interviewed Class of 2018 inductees on their athletic careers and legacies.

Today’s feature: Dwight Phillips


How did you get started in track and field and when did you first realize your potential?

I started when I was eight years old, and I kind of realized my potential in third grade when my elementary school teacher suggested I try out for a track team because she saw some talent in me. My mom got me involved in a program called DC Motion, and my coach was Dan Wilkerson.


I started off as a cross country runner, and I wasn't very good at that, so I tried the mile and two mile, and I wasn't very good at that, and then I tried the 800 and I wasn't very good at that either. The 400 was kind of my niche from age 12 until my senior year in high school. In my mind, I was a 400-meter specialist. I had great jumping ability and I jumped 23 feet in high school but didn't make much progress.


I also ran 47 in the 400 as a sophomore, but I didn't really have a coach to take me to the next level. I was a dual sport athlete and I put a lot of attention on basketball. We had a really good team, so by the time basketball was over we were already in the county section of track and I wasn't really in shape for it. Most of my success came in summer track.


I thought I was going on to become a 400 runner. In 1996, I got a chance to see Michael Johnson and Carl Lewis and Gwen Torrence at the Olympics, and I was inspired by them. I made it my goal to make it to the 2000 Olympics running the 400.


What made you decide you could jump really well?

I was dunking in the eighth grade even though I was only 5’7’’. At a high school meet later I high jumped 6-10, and my best going into that meet was 6-1. I was doing so many events that meet, by the time I got back to the high jump the bar was at 6-8. It just didn't look that high to me, though. When I jumped I thought I had gone under the bar and had really embarrassed myself, but I actually went over and beat the state champion. That's when I knew I could really jump.


When I was at Kentucky, Edrick Floreal was the coach, and on the first day of practice he said he felt I could be the Olympic champion if I focused on the long jump. I said, no disrespect, coach, but I'm a quarter horse, I run the 400. The jumping is cute, but I'm a 400 runner. At Kentucky I was the most mediocre 400 runner, and I decided to transfer to Arizona State.


I set foot on campus and Coach Kraft divided the team into event groups, and I chose to go with the 400 group. Coach Kraft said no, we had a change of plans and you're a jumper. I said no, I'm a 400 runner. He said I could jump or go home. Every day I dreaded going to practice, but I gave it all I had.


That year I went from being a mediocre 400 runner to having the 7th-best jump in the world and finishing second at the NCAA meet. I found a new confidence.


What set you apart from your other competitors in the long jump?

I was a student of the sport. I wasn't guessing. When I stepped on the field, I knew exactly what I needed to do from my very first step until the moment I landed in the sand.


I spent more hours studying than actually training. That took away the guesswork for me and it helped me be more mentally strong because I didn't have to rely all on my athletic ability, and I really learned how to control my emotions.


In 2000, I was immature. I was excited about seeing my teammates perform well and spent a lot of energy supporting everybody else instead of staying in my zone. It was a huge learning experience. I learned to put the focus on myself, and it paid off very well. I was able to win the Olympic gold in 2004 and I took that same mentality through the rest of my career.


Is there a single moment in your career that stands out to you?

There are so many moments because I think it evolved throughout my career. I think the one that really stands out to me is in Birmingham in 2003 at the World Indoor Championships. Angelo Taylor, one of my friends, called me the "King of Second." He said it in a playful manner, but it was true. I was second at the NCAAs, second at the Olympic Trials, second at the U.S. Championships.


That really motivated me. Every day in training I set goals, and I said I was going to win the 2003 World Championships indoors and out. In Birmingham I was winning through the first five rounds before Yago Lamela of Spain passed me. There I was in second again. In the fifth round I had tweaked my hamstring. I had that tablespoon of doubt, but then it dawned on me that I wasn't going to let it happen again. I had worked too hard, studied too much, taken care of my body, so I went and won on my last jump by two centimeters.


I always say that those two centimeters gave me the confidence of a lifetime, because at that moment I had arrived, and I taught myself how to win.


What motivated you as an athlete, and what advice would you have for the next generation of athletes?

The motivation is to be the very best you can be. I set a goal, and the goal was to make it to the Olympics in 2000. I scaled that goal. I made it to the Olympics, and then I wanted to win. I won the Olympics and then I wanted to be a Hall of Fame athlete. It takes a great deal of attention to detail, having a positive attitude, being coachable, there are so many different components.


Take care of your body and believe in yourself. If you don't truly believe to the core of your soul, there's really no reason you should be doing it in the first place. I love to tell athletes to be the very best you can be and don't live your life saying coulda woulda shoulda, just do it. The rest takes care of itself.


Do you wish you'd been able to focus a little bit more on the 100m during your career?

Now that I'm a coach I can see a lot more clearly than I could as an athlete, because I was so focused on trying to pursue breaking the world record in the long jump, and just paying attention to that detail, that I didn't pay as much attention to my sprint mechanics as I should have.


Had I known then what I know now, I would definitely have pursued it because I overtrained tremendously. I felt the only way to be best was just to work harder. I realize now you have to be more strategic and work smart and hard. You have to pick and choose your battles.


I approached every day as work your ass off as hard as you can, every day, and in the end, it will pay off. Now I am a lot wiser and understand physiology a lot better. I'm very fortunate now to be able to help other people achieve their dreams and goals.


Other than earning Olympic and world medals, what were some of the highs of your career and also what were some of the lows?

When I won that first World Indoor medal it was an emotional high, because I felt invincible and had taught myself how to win. Of course, winning Olympic gold was the pinnacle of the sport, something that every track and field athlete desires, even more so than the world records.


Making history being one of the only American athletes to win four World Championships in a single event, that was pretty cool.


Coming back in Daegu in 2011, everybody counted me out. I hadn't won a competition all year. But on that day, I just felt fantastic. Those bones and muscles were old, but they were working well and moving fast.


I came out victorious there when I had lost every single competition of the year, but I believed in myself so much, all the studying and technique that I had executed over and over and over again. To not have to rely my athletic ability, but my knowledge of the sport, I was able to beat athletes who were far superior to me at the time. I would say that was probably the most memorable moment of my career.


Add to that I had the number 1111 as my bib number, which was serendipitous as I was able to come out and win the World Championships with that number to signify my fourth title. That still gives me chills to this day.


What was your reaction to the news you're being inducted into the Hall of Fame?

I knew honestly that was one of my goals, to become a Hall of Fame athlete. I knew at some point I would get inducted because it was a goal, something I really wanted. I thought it would be maybe 10 years or 15 years after I retired, not five, so I'm just grateful to be honored.


What have you been involved in since you retired from competition?

I have been an athlete advocate and on Athletes Advisory, and I have been on the IAAF athlete commission. I own a company called The Winners Circle and we help high school students prepare for the next stage and college, and I also help place these athletes based on their athletic abilities to different NCAA institutions where they fit in. I also coach professional athletes and that's been keeping me extremely busy.


I'm an avid photographer, I enjoy creating. That's pretty much been the center of my life these days.

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