Whitney Gipson is usually a pretty cool customer. She seldom lets her emotions get the best of her, whether high or low. It has served her well during an illustrious track and field career at TCU.
But in April 2011, she was sobbing after failing to make the long jump finals at the Texas Relays in Austin. Advancing to the finals had become a given for her after more than two seasons of racking up numerous medals and All-American honors.
"She was crying like a 10-year-old," said TCU track and field coach Darryl Anderson, who tried to console her as they walked toward the bus to leave. "For me, that was a turning point, because that was the first time I remember her showing an emotional side to a performance."
Gipson, who graduated with a broadcast journalism degree in May, rededicated herself that night to the sport she had taken for granted.
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"It was very devastating," she said. "To miss out in that one big meet really hurt. I was heartbroken. It made me re-evaluate myself. I felt like I let my team down first off, and then my coaches and myself because I knew I had the tools to win that meet."
Before they loaded the bus, Gipson told Anderson she'd never miss a finals again.
She hasn't. And now, after arguably the greatest individual season in TCU track and field history, in which she won NCAA long jump titles indoors (22 feet, 8 inches -- which would have been good enough for a bronze medal in the 2008 Summer Olympics) and outdoors (22-4 1/2), Gipson is a few jumps away from making the U.S. Olympic team. She'll try to earn one of three spots in the women's long jump at the U.S. Olympic trials beginning next Friday in Eugene, Ore.
"My plan was just to go to TCU, get my degree and get a job -- a regular job," said Gipson, who turns 22 in September. "The Olympics were too far off for me. I never thought I'd have a chance to go."
Truth is, it took a while for Gipson to start believing in herself. She was a gifted, all-around athlete at Birdville High School, the daughter of college athletes. Her mother, Willa Gipson, the longtime Birdville schools athletic director, played volleyball in college; her dad, Winston, an assistant principal in the Mansfield school district, played basketball.
Gipson was an accomplished basketball player at Birdville and had numerous offers to play in college. But four trips to the state track and field championships convinced her the long jump offered a longer career. Still, she had to be motivated to do more by her coaches, including Anderson, who gave her an ultimatum her sophomore year.
"You have to make a decision," Anderson said to her after she cleared 21 feet and earned All-American status. "I can live with what you do from this point forward, but can you live with it? You've done things here that you could be proud of and you can talk about for the rest of your life, but there's so much more. You haven't even touched it yet. You're not even close."
To Anderson and TCU assistant and jump coach Nic Petersen, it was clear she had untapped potential if she'd only hone her skill and believe in her ability.
"She had to be convinced," Anderson said.
So did Anderson. At a high school meet TCU hosted Gipson's senior year at Birdville, Anderson watched her jump 19 feet to win the gold. But her form and technique were so bad that Anderson laughed at his then assistant coach, Jeff Petersmeyer, because he was already convinced she deserved a scholarship.
"My gosh, she's doing so many things wrong, but she's really explosive when she comes in and takes off," Anderson thought at the time. "She was really raw. She was making mistakes and still having a degree of success. She had done so many different sports in high school that she had never really been settled. For me, she just epitomized being an athlete without honing any skill set yet."
During the fall of her freshman year at TCU, Anderson soon started seeing rapid progression in Gipson and predicted she'd eventually jump 22 feet.
"At the time, it was hard for me to believe," Gipson said. "I think 19-10 was my farthest jump at Birdville."
During her sophomore season, she started to believe what her coaches had been saying. Petersen showed her tapes of European professionals, their techniques, how important their running speed was to their jumps.
"He makes us be a student of our sport and study professionals to see how they're being successful," Gipson said. "It kind of hit me hard. I realized if I kept working at it, taking it more seriously, I could have a shot."
Jeff Hudak, who first coached Gipson at Smithfield Middle School and later at Birdville, is not surprised by her success. Her raw talent and athleticism was evident, he said, it was just a matter of getting her the proper training.
"We knew when she got in a real collegiate weight room, because I'm not sure she knew where the weight room was in high school, she'd improve, but the improvement she has made is just unbelievable," said Hudak, who is now the head boys basketball coach at Joshua High School. "I couldn't be more proud of what she's done and to be able to say I had the opportunity to work with her in high school. And now she's moving on to this huge stage, it blows my mind away. It's kind of a humbling experience to work with that kind of talent. It's a once in a lifetime thing for a lot of us."
Three weeks after the misery of her 2011 Texas Relays failure, Gipson set a meet record with a jump of 21 feet, 11 1/2 inches at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia. Two weeks later she took gold at the Mountain West Championships. She finished fourth at the NCAA Outdoor Championships a year ago, at the time the best long jump finish in TCU women's history.
In March, she matched the NCAA Indoor Championship record with a personal best leap of 22-8 to become the first female TCU athlete to win an NCAA track and field title. Two weeks ago today, Gipson finished her TCU career by claiming the NCAA Outdoor Championship, another first for a female Frog. She has improved her best jump 34 inches since arriving at TCU.
"I'm approaching [the Olympic trials] with confidence and not worrying about anything; not worrying about all the professionals and whether they should be better than me," she said. "I'm very excited and happy with all that I've accomplished, but I'm not content with it. I feel like I have another level to get to."