By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — A school record that stood for more than 35 years fell in late January at University Park, Pa. When the news reached Keith Witherspoon in Richmond, he was delighted.
Witherspoon is the triple jumper who in 1976 set that indoor record at the University of Virginia — 53 feet, 0.25 inches. He’s also the man who, as an assistant coach at J.R. Tucker High School in Richmond, first taught Marcus Robinson about the triple jump and long jump.
Robinson? He’s the UVa graduate student who on Jan. 28 broke Witherspoon’s longstanding school record, jumping 53 feet, 5.75 inches (16.30 meters) at the Penn State National Invitational.
“Marcus was sent [to Virginia] to break it and get a good education,” Witherspoon said recently, “and he’s done both.”
Witherspoon, a 1976 alumnus, still holds UVa’s record for the outdoor triple jump — 53 feet, 4.50 inches (16.27 meters) — but he expects Robinson to leave Charlottesville with that mark, too.
“I’ve had a standing bet with my wife for a couple years about when it would happen, because she didn’t believe it would,” Witherspoon said, “and I told her, ‘He’s gonna do it.’ It won’t be a problem for him.”
Robinson, who earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology at UVa in 2011, has yet to compete outdoors this year, but that’s about to change. Virginia is hosting the ACC championships this week at Lannigan Field, and Robinson, who redshirted during the 2011 outdoor season, is among the favorites in the triple jump.
“It’s amazing,” Robinson said of having the ACC meet in Charlottesville.
The ACC championships, free for spectators, start Thursday afternoon and run through Saturday evening. The triple jump will be contested Saturday afternoon.
For the Cavaliers, the ACC meet is an opportunity to show off newly renovated Lannigan Field, which for many years ranked among the least impressive track facilities in Division I.
“It’s a huge deal,” Robinson said, “getting a brand-new track, because we desperately needed it. It was a huge thing, and I’m glad that future [athletes at UVa] will have something that we really didn’t have.”
Two weeks after his historic performance at Penn State, Robinson extended the school record to 54 feet, 6.75 inches (16.63 meters) at the Tyson Invitational in Fayetteville, Ark. Then, at Boston in late February, Robinson repeated as ACC indoor champion. But the indoor season ended on a disappointing note for him.
Robinson, 23, entered the NCAA indoor meet at Nampa, Idaho, ranked No. 1 nationally in the triple jump. He placed fifth with a jump of 53 feet, 0.75 inches (16.17 meters).
“I would love to have won it for UVa, but for me, more importantly, I just wanted to go out there and jump well,” Robinson said, “and I didn’t do that. I was just all over the place.”
That was Robinson’s third trip to the NCAA indoor championships, and “the first time he went, it was great to just make it to the meet,” said Michael Eskind, who coaches jumps at Virginia.
“The second time he went, we were kind of hoping to make the finals, and here he was in his third try, going in with the top mark in the country. He didn’t really have any kind of experience to get into that mental head space.”
Eskind added: “It would be one thing if he’d gone to the third [NCAA] meet and been like, ‘All right, we’re going to make finals and we’re going to battle for a top-three [finish]’ or whatever. But to kind of take a step beyond that and go right to, ‘Well, you’re the top mark, you should win,’ I think that was kind of” difficult for Robinson to handle.
At J.R. Tucker, Robinson played football and basketball in addition to competing in track.
“His senior year,” Witherspoon recalled, “during the indoor season I had Marcus for a grand total of four days because of basketball.”
That was enough training for Robinson to win the state Group AAA indoor title in the triple jump.
“In fact,” Witherspoon said, “he won it with his first jump. He went 48 feet with his first jump, and that blew all of his competitors’ minds. Now, there were three other guys capable of doing that, but for him to do it on the first jump, they freaked. And by the time they got themselves back together, it was too late.”
Robinson was a ninth-grader when he began working with Witherspoon, who remembers him as a “coach’s dream.”
“With Marcus, I never had to worry,” Witherspoon said. “If I said Marcus, ‘Do this,’ I knew that that was what was going to be done. I didn’t have to check out everything he did.”
At UVa, Robinson also competed in the long jump his first two years, and he was solid in that event, Eskind said. “But the training that he had to do, to do both, was going to put him at risk to potentially do neither [at an elite level].”
And so Robinson decided to focus on the triple jump, a decision that looks wiser all the time. He’s steadily improved at UVa, where he redshirted during the 2007-08 indoor season, and has already qualified for the Olympic Trials, June 21 to July 1 in Eugene, Ore.
“He’s got the ability to make the finals at the Olympic Trials,” Eskind said. “It’s kind of hard to say he can do this or that [nationally], but he’s 6-3 or 6-4, 190 pounds and really strong and runs well and competes well. He just needs more experience at that level, which he’s continuing to get.”
As a schoolboy, Robinson hoped to play football at UVa. But when a scholarship offer was not forthcoming, Robinson said, “I turned to track.” He misses football, “but I’m glad I’m doing track. I think I’d be doing well [in football], but not as well as I’m doing with track.”
That track and field is, at its core, an individual sport is one reason it appeals to Robinson. “It’s not so much about how well the team does,” he said. “It’s more about how well you do, and I feel 10 times more excited when I’m the one doing it, as opposed to the whole team doing it, because I control everything.”
Witherspoon and Robinson have stayed in touch, and Witherspoon plans to return to his alma mater this week for the ACC meet. He never doubted that his protégé would excel in college.
“Marcus had drive, he had intelligence,” Witherspoon said. “I knew he had the attributes that were needed and that it was just a matter of time. That’s why I was so happy when he went to Virginia.”