0

Proud to be an American

Former Monroe star and Clemson sophomore Mimi Land will represent the United States this weekend in the Pan American Junior Championships in Colombia, where she will compete in the long jump against the top junior athletes from around the world. (Clemson University/Special to The Herald)

Former Monroe star and Clemson sophomore Mimi Land will represent the United States this weekend in the Pan American Junior Championships in Colombia, where she will compete in the long jump against the top junior athletes from around the world. (Clemson University/Special to The Herald)

MEDELLIN, Colombia — Two weeks ago, Mimi Land ripped open a box full of United States apparel.

Track uniforms, jogging suits, T-shirts, jackets …

It was all red, white and blue — and it was all straight out of Land’s dreams.

“I tried all of it on as soon as I got it,” Land said Monday in an interview with The Herald. “I just started putting on clothes. It’s the same equipment that the Olympians wear.”

Land, a former Monroe star and rising sophomore at Clemson, will represent America in this weekend’s Pan American Junior Championships in Colombia, where the three-time Herald Player of the Year, nine-time GHSA state champion and reigning ACC Freshman of the Year will step onto the world stage for the first time in her life.

Land, 19, qualified for the junior national team back in June by finishing second in the long jump in the U.S. Junior Outdoor Track & Field Championship — and now she will be jumping with an entire country watching.

“I’m not jumping for myself now,” Land said Monday at Clemson, where she will depart from this morning to head to South America. “I’m not jumping for a school. I’m jumping for the United States. And that pushes me harder and makes me want it more than ever before.”

Land participates in the long jump, high jump and triple jump in college but will only compete in the long jump at the biennial Pan American Junior Championships, which begin Friday. Land, fellow American Alexis Faulknor from Central Florida and the rest of the long jumpers will compete Saturday, and Paul Jones, coach of Albany’s Ruff Riders Track Club, believes Land has a shot to shine among the best in the world.

“When you are talking about Mimi, she has a shot to medal anywhere she goes,” said Jones, who has trained Land since she was 8 years old . “She is a game-time athlete. That’s what she does. When the lights come on and the people get in the stands, she rises to the occasion.”

But to appreciate just how high Land has risen, you need to rewind 12 months — before she punched her ticket to Medellin, Columbia, and before she received that package full of official U.S. team clothes.

A year ago, she finished third in a qualifying event for the junior national event in Des Moines, Iowa, where she came up one spot short of making the national team.

It was heartbreaking for the 18-year-old, who still remembers the long, devastating car ride back to Albany from Iowa with her parents.

“I felt disappointed and defeated. It was the worst feeling,” she said. “I cried for a little bit, but my dad is the tough type and told me to suck it up and learn from it. My mom talked to me and told me I would have another chance and that I should let it go, come back and train harder and have a goal to look at.”

So for a year, Land never stopped training and started leaping closer and closer to a spot on the national team.

“I trained really hard,” she said. “It helped me coming to college and getting better as an athlete mentally and physically. Yeah, I moped for a little bit, but I had to get back on my feet.”

She finally landed on the American squad late in June with a 19-foot jump in that same qualifier in Iowa. It was a leap that nearly brought her to tears.

“It felt like I was day dreaming. It was amazing,” she said. “The most exciting part is once you finish they give you a green slip of paper that says you made the team, and it tells you where to go and where to get measured for your clothes and check on your passport. The best feeling ever was to receive that paper.”

It also felt good to dust off the passport that she applied for several years ago hoping for the day she would get to use it as a member of the national team.

“Words can’t even explain how excited I am,” Land said. “I am very appreciative and blessed to have this opportunity to represent the U.S.”

Of course, Land isn’t settling for just showing up in Columbia and taking in the once-in-a-lifetime atmosphere.

“I want to medal,” she said. “I want to come back with a souvenir that I didn’t have to buy.”

Land’s personal-best distance is 20-5, but Jones said the top long jumpers in the world will likely travel up to a foot further in a competition that the U.S. has been outclassed in by other nations in the last six years. Jessica Reis from Brazil won the 2011 long jump title with a leap of 20-11.75, but Faulknor, who has a 21-4.75 personal best, and Land could challenge for the gold.

But medal or not this weekend, Land’s appearance on the world stage opens endless opportunities for her.

“This opens up a whole lot of doors,” Jones said. “Once you start on the world level like this, it opens doors to get better and better.”

The junior games, Land said, are often the first step for future Olympians.

“Sanya Richards-Ross, Brianna Rollins, Kimberlyn Duncan,” said Land, listing names of some of the top women’s track & field athletes in the nation. “They all went through this. These girls started off just like me.”

And now just like them, Land is representing America and wearing the stars and stripes with a type of pride reserved for the best athletes in the world.

“When I come back from Columbia, I will be wearing my gear every where,” she said.

And a medal around her neck would be the perfect accessory.