LINCOLN — Most nights, Janis Leitis said he goes to sleep thinking about the long jump. About the steps down the runway, pounding off the board with great speed and throwing himself into the pit. Preferably more than 26 feet.
“Everything I see is long jump,” Leitis says.
So naturally, when Leitis couldn’t long jump after hurting his groin before the 2012 European Championships, his dreams of qualifying for the London Olympics seemed dead.
But Leitis could still run the 400 meters. And for a guy who doesn’t think much of running it, boy, can he. Good enough to actually qualify for the Olympics and represent his home country of Latvia. Good enough that he’s ranked fourth in the nation — first in the Big Ten Conference — after running it last week for the first time this season.
“In the long run, it may very well be his best event,” Husker track and field coach Gary Pepin said.
But it’s the not event that Leitis loves most. That’s the long jump. Leitis is tops in the Big Ten and third in the nation in that event. He hopes to beat the competition again this weekend at the Frank Sevigne Invitational, a two-day meet at the Bob Devaney Sports Center that will attract some of the nation’s best teams, including defending national champion Florida.
The Gators have the nation’s No. 4-ranked long jumper in Marquis Dendy. At No. 2 is Missouri’s Malcolm Pennix, who should also compete this weekend. At No. 5 is fellow Husker Patrick Raedler.
All four are clustered between 25 feet, 2 inches and 25 feet, 6ľ inches. Leitis knows that the best high jumpers routinely cross the 26 foot barrier. Last year, Great Britain’s Greg Rutherford won the Olympics with a leap of roughly 27 feet, 3 inches. Getting into the Olympic final required just millimeters short of 26 feet.
To reach the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Leitis has to leave the board with more speed, Pepin said. He has to train more like a sprinter. More like the guy who runs the 400 so well. And of course, Pepin said, Leitis could simply improve so much at the 400 that it becomes his top event.
Leitis isn’t quite so sure. When he’s finished running a 400-meter race, he said, he’s often so tired that he lays flat on his back, drinks water and talks to no one for a half-hour. That happened at the Euro Championships last year.
“Three or four people asked me if I needed an ambulance,” Leitis said. He did not, but the event drains him. That’s why he won’t even run it at the Big Ten Championships. At the 2012 Olympics, Leitis finished fifth in his initial heat and didn’t qualify for the semifinals. For as good of an experience as it was — seeing the Team USA basketball star LeBron James in the cafeteria, for example — Leitis wasn’t fulfilled.
“You’re going to the Olympics in the 400 and you don’t have any ambition there,” Leitis said. “You don’t know anything. It kinda messed me up. I went there with no expectations — just to compete. And that’s not how an athlete has to go to the Olympics. In the 400 meters, I never had this dream.”
He has it in the long jump, an event Pepin personally coaches and Nebraska traditionally excels in. As a senior who completed his bachelor’s degree in Latvia and came to NU for one year because his girlfriend, Mara Griva, is a long jumper and triple jumper for the Huskers, Leitis said he’s been “helped by everyone” in a short time.
Leitis has helped the overall strength of the NU men’s team, too.
“I would have loved to have him four years ago,” Pepin said. “But I’m happy to have him for one semester versus not at all. He’s a tremendous asset.”
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