When track star Will Claye first tried the triple jump at Mountain Pointe High School in Ahwatukee his freshman year, his coach, Larry Todd, told him he was too good. "He was like, 'Oh yeah. You got it. You've almost got it down too well, too early,'" Claye recalls. "'You're too good right now. You need to relax, chill out.'"
Claye never did chill out on the triple jump.
The native Arizonan graduated high school early and took a track scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, where he won a national championship on his 18th birthday. He competed in the 2012 Olympics in London, bringing home a silver medal in the triple jump and a bronze in the long jump. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this summer, he took another silver in the triple jump — and promptly proposed to his longtime girlfriend Queen Harrison, a professional track athlete he met at a TGI Fridays in Sweden during a competition — in the stands. (She said yes.)
New Times caught up with the 25-year-old Olympian earlier this month, when his alma mater held a ceremony to induct him into the Mountain Pointe High School Hall of Fame. Walking across his living room with three medals clanking around his neck, he says he envisions himself competing in two more Olympics and winning four more medals before he's through. He says it with confidence but not arrogance, adding that he'll have to train long and hard to achieve his goal.
Claye is a natural athlete, but nothing has come easy for him.
He was born in Tucson but grew up in Phoenix, around 16th Street and Baseline Road, in a lower-income neighborhood with a high crime rate. He and his two brothers were raised by their single mother, who'd immigrated to Tucson from Sierra Leone to earn her doctorate in nutrition.
"She was raising all three of us boys while she was getting her doctorate. She was taking care of us, and she had this cleaning business that we would all go and help with when we were young," Claye recounts. "I was the baby, so I didn't do much, but I would still go along. And that was how we held up — just doing things like that. My grandmother would come and take care of me when my mom was at school and my brothers were at school."
Sports were Claye's saving grace. His older brother played football at Camelback High School, and earned an athletic scholarship to University of California, Berkeley.
"He was the one who kind of showed me the way," Claye says now. "I saw him go to college at a young age and get a scholarship, and to see that my parents didn't have to pay for his college and things like that, I thought: 'I want to do the same thing.'"
He started doing long jump and hurdles at age 11 and went on to play football (wide receiver and corner) at Mountain Pointe High School. The school, which Claye chose for its athletics — and academics, he's quick to add — was outside Claye's district, which meant a long commute on public transportation every day.
"I had to take care of myself, because my mom worked a lot," he says. "I had to be man of the house, and I think that helped me to mature a lot faster, and it prepared me for life down the road, as far as college. A lot of kids get to college and wild out, but me, I get to college and I'm super-focused, like, 'I've seen all of this stuff and it doesn't surprise me. I'm just here to get my schoolwork done and do well in track.'
"And now I'm a professional track athlete," Claye continues. "My best friend [Markus Wheaton], he's playing for the Steelers — he went to Mountain Pointe, as well. His brother played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Another one of my friends is, like, a higher-up at Dell. And we all came from this place where there were times when we all had to put just our few dollars together to get a meal for all of us to share. And now we've grown into some pretty well-established young men. So it's kind of cool to come from that and to end up where I am now, and to be able to come back and tell my story and motivate other people and help kids that may be in similar positions."
Before we let Claye go, we asked him to share his three favorite dining spots in Phoenix when he's not in training.
Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles (1220 S. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-340-1304; 3133 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-945-1920) "I go to both locations," Claye says. "That's some of the best chicken, and the best waffles."
Espo's Mexican Food (3867 W. Chandler Blvd., Chandler, 480-588-7377) "I love Mexican food, and there’s so many Mexican restaurants I've been to here, but the one that I would say would be Espo's, in Chandler," Claye says. "Espo's is, like, the best Mexican food I've ever had."
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Pete's Fish & Chips (3920 S. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-268-1828) "When I was younger, my favorite place my mom would always bring me home food from was Pete's Fish & Chips," Claye says. "I loved Pete's Fish & Chips. I would always ask my mom to bring me home some Pete's. That was a special spot."
That said, the first place Claye wanted to go eat when he returned to Phoenix after the Rio Olympics was his godmother’s house. "Every time I come home, she has a big barbecue, and me and all the boys, she'll barbecue for us," he says. "Nothing better than that. You can’t beat that."
Watch the 2016 Olympic Men's Triple Jump finals from Rio: