Lapierre up there: Fabrice's leap of faith
Australian long jumper Fabrice Lapierre has just missed out on a second World Indoor Championships gold medal. The 2010 champion jumped 8.25 metres in Portland, Oregon, beaten by one centimetre by American Marquis Dendy. He'll be aiming for gold in Rio, Terry Mallinder reports.
AS CHRIST the Redeemer looks down on the Olympic athletes competing this year in Rio, Fabrice Lapierre's own 'saviour' will be trackside watching over the Australian's performance.
He doesn't quite cast a shadow like Brazil's famous 38m statue of Jesus, but American coach Dan Pfaff is an imposing figure in the world of track and field.
And when Lapierre's long jump career had begun to sink as if he had landed in quick sand, it was Pfaff who the four-time national champion and one-time Commonwealth title-holder reached out to.
Having learnt from Tom Tellez, the man behind the success of the legendary Carl Lewis, Pfaff went on to guide the likes of Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey (1996) and British long jumper Greg Rutherford (2012) to Olympic glory.
Now head coach at the Altis elite training facility in Arizona, Pfaff is overseeing about 100 athletes from 30 countries, including long jumpers Rutherford, Queensland's Olympic silver medallist Mitchell Watt, and Lapierre.
"That's what he's known as - the guru of track and field," Lapierre tells APN from his home in Phoenix, apt considering his rise from the ashes. "Everyone is always trying to get advice from him."
Lapierre wanted more than just advice, however, he wanted complete tutelage from the master mentor.
The 32-year-old had been at the peak of his powers in 2010, securing gold at the world indoor championships in Doha and Commonwealth Games in Delhi, and jumping an incredible 8.78m to win his third Australian title in Perth. It was the longest jump in 15 years, and only five men have ever gone further.
But his fall was significant, enduring season after season hampered by injury (particularly hamstring strains), and poor performances, resulting in missing selection for the 2012 London Games.
"I got to a point in my career where I didn't know what I wanted to do anymore," he says.
"Things weren't going my way, so I decided to come here and see what I could do under Dan and the whole group in Phoenix."
Even if that meant following the sometimes harsh world according to Pfaff. The veteran coach doesn't suffer fools. Pfaff giveth, but can just as quickly taketh away if standards are not being met.
Once describing the Sydney-raised Lapierre as a "laidback Aussie whose brain is having hamsters", Pfaff had been savage on his approach to just about everything to do with his long jumping - to both the actual pit and to his preparation - but was willing to work with him.
"If you've done something wrong he'll let you know about it," Lapierre says.
"We had a talk about my life and what I was doing wrong with it, and how I've got to improve - pretty straight to the point. But, he was good with it, happy to help me out.
"I've been in the sport for a long time, but he's taught me stuff I had no idea about. I guess he just guides you. The rest is up to you.
"It's worked out so far."
Since the end of 2014, Lapierre has enjoyed more structured training, a world-class medical team at his disposal, and, significantly, a greatly improved routine.
Having "fallen back in love with the sport", for this born-again long jumper it's not about reaching great heights, but going to great lengths.
"I'm known for jumping really high from take off," Lapierre explains. "He (Pfaff) has been helping me to try and get my angles smoother."
Ironically, teacher and pupil had what Pfaff described as a "come-to-Jesus moment" during last year's world championships at the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing.
Lapierre had arrived late for competition and only just managed to progress past the qualifying round. But, following another frank discussion with Pfaff, he leapt his way to silver behind training partner Rutherford.
"It was very satisfying," Lapierre says. "Having had a few hard years - and even at the worlds I was struggling with a hamstring issue ... I told Dan I didn't think I'd be able to finish.
"But, I just didn't think about the pain I was feeling in my leg ... and I was able to get it done. Dan was really proud of that because he knew I was having issues."
Ahead of last weekend's world indoors and the Australian championships from March 31-April 3 in Sydney, Lapierre had been training up to six days a week with an eye fixed firmly on Rio.
He admitted missing the last Games was "depressing" and simply couldn't bring himself to watch.
"I've been training harder than I ever have in my life," he says. "Making all the right changes I need to make. Ticking all the boxes. Hopefully when it comes down to it I can get that medal. It is unfinished business - it's the only medal that I haven't won."
The nationals, which Lapierre won in 2006, '09, '10 and '13, will double as selection trials, and he says "as long as I jump what I can I should be fine" to book his ticket for Rio. He did record the six longest leaps by an Aussie in 2015.
While Australia has produced a steady supply of Olympic silver medallists in the sport - Theo Bruce (1948), Gary Honey (1984), Jai Taurima (2000), and Watt (2012), on his own comeback trail - no Aussie long jumper has stood atop the podium.
Though born in Mauritius, and a resident of the US for 12 years since first attending Texas A&M University, Lapierre says "my aim is to change that this year and bring home the gold for Australia".
Of course, there will be a certain American he'll have to thank.