Neither is particularly known for his relay abilities on the Arizona track team, but Nick Ross is certainly passing the baton to Avery Mickens.
Sitting in a hotel room in Fayetteville, Arkansas, awaiting the NCAA West Prelims in which they would compete this weekend for the Wildcats, the road roommates talked by phone about their mentor-mentee relationship, one that has lifted to greater heights.
They’re able to discuss fitness regimens and leaping techniques, and how to navigate everything from the runway to the classroom. Mostly, they discuss centimeters, and how important they are.
They can’t escape them. They live their lives by them.
Ross, a redshirt senior out of Murrieta, California, needed to come 3.75 centimeters short to get where he is today.
He has been jumping for what seems like a lifetime, so entering the 2012 Olympic trials he knew that every last hair counted. When he finished third with a jump of 7 feet 5.75 inches — the top three Americans would advance to the Olympics, it was thought — the joy was short-lived. An Olympic-standard jump was 7 feet, 7 inches.
“Three centimeters,” Ross says, and you can almost hear him shaking his head. “Man to some people, it barely seems like anything. To me, every centimeter is the world.”
Mickens, meanwhile, needed to be 15.24 centimeters long to get where he is today.
Unlike Ross, who was destined for the highest levels of college athletics early in his high school career, this is relatively new to Mickens. Mickens only started jumping as a freshman in high school, and major attention trickled in slowly.
Coming into college, Mickens’ personal record in the long jump was 22 feet, eight inches. He didn’t expect to make much of an impact. When he hit 23-2 in his first college meet — six inches farther, 15.24 centimeters — his eyes opened. He’d made real, tangible progress in just a few months. A few meets into the season, he recorded a 23-6 leap, another PR. When he almost casually hit 24 feet midway through the season, he had to recalibrate his own expectations.
“I thought I would come in, improve a little bit, and take it slow,” Mickens said. “I mean, 24 feet, that was one of the main goals I had coming into college, but when I hit that so early, I had to think bigger.”
Mickens took home his first Pac-12 men’s field athlete of the week after closing in on 25 feet at the Wildcats’ dual meet at Oregon on April 8, while also competing for Arizona in the high jump, and 400-meter and 1,600-meter relays.
His collegiate season may have ended on Friday night in Fayetteville — when he failed to advance the NCAA semifinals — but now that he has exceeded even his wildest hopes, he’s going to push for the learning to continue.
“He’s explained the ways to organize every single round, how to have everything straight for track and school, how to get that right,” Mickens said of Ross. “How to keep your body healthy but also how to keep have fun in college. These are life pointers. Being here with him is important. If I’d just heard about him and didn’t know him, it’s ‘Oh, he’s this one special guy.’ With Nick, he’s a real person. He’s not superhuman, he’s human.”
That has been proved time and time again in Ross’ career, through three ankle surgeries, a knee surgery and a near-miss at an Olympic bid.
That’s when he said he thought of quitting, of using all his misfortunes as an excuse.
He didn’t quit.
He stayed, to leap untouchable heights and to teach a new kid a thing or two.
“There’s a quote, ‘Things get worse before they get better,’” Ross said. “I rely on quotes like that, on my trainer, Charlie, and my friends. I rely on friends telling me I’ll jump 7-8 here soon, and I’ve tried to put that on Avery. ‘You’re going to jump 24.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Man, my best was 22, and we see it in you.’ Sometimes that’s all it takes, someone sitting there and telling you could do it.”
Someday in the near future, Mickens will deal with his own set of misfortune, and he’ll have to summon the strength to teach some wide-eyed freshman about life and leaping.
And the baton will be passed once more.