2021 | Sports

Silver Spring paraeducator returning to Olympics for triple jump redemption

After an injury in Rio in 2016, LaFond getting another chance in Tokyo

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Thea LaFond

Photo by Elia Griffin

After a hamstring injury deflated her chances the 2016 Olympics, triple jumper Thea LaFond of Silver Spring is getting another chance in Tokyo this month.

LaFond, a paraeducator at John F. Kennedy High School, has been waiting five years to make her return to the Olympics.

“Deep down inside, I’m definitely excited. … I waited four [years] and then had to push back a year,” LaFond said in an interview. “I love what I do, so I’m just excited for, you know, the world to see.”

The triple jump is a track and field event similar to the long jump. It is sometimes referred to as the “hop, skip and jump,” describing the steps before the final leap into the sand pit.

The women’s triple jump qualifications take place on July 30 and the finals will be held on Aug. 1. NBC, the official broadcast host of the Olympics, will air the competition.

LaFond, 27, was born in Roseau, Dominica, a small Caribbean island nation north of Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, St. Lucia and Barbados.

She will be one of two athletes representing her native country in Tokyo.

When LaFond was 5 years old, her family moved from Dominica to New Jersey. Two years later, her father got a job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the family moved to Silver Spring.

During her youth, LaFond did not have Olympic dreams like many Olympians do. She was a dancer, classically trained in ballet, jazz and tap.

That was until she started high school and had to drop dance, as it started to become an increasingly expensive endeavor. LaFond said her mother pushed her to find a more affordable after-school activity, especially with her mother pregnant with LaFond’s younger brother.

LaFond, who attended Kennedy High, began searching for a new activity and outlet. She dabbled in volleyball in the fall, but when the season ended, she needed another sport to fill the void during the winter and spring seasons.

With a little bit of “good peer pressure,” as LaFond put it, she joined the track and field team with her friends.

The track and field coach started LaFond on hurdles, despite her initial thoughts of running long distance. Eventually, her coach had her compete in the high jump, the long jump and the triple jump.

As LaFond grew more serious about track and recognized her athletic talent, others saw her potential.

Chris Paul, the weight room coach at Kennedy High, who was from Jamaica, introduced LaFond to the idea of competing for Dominica at the CARIFTA Games, a major youth sports competition in the Caribbean.

Paul helped LaFond — who was 16 years old at the time — sign up for the games and contact athletic officials in Dominica.

More than 10 years later, LaFond still competes for Dominica.

LaFond said she has had opportunities to switch her allegiance to the U.S., but stuck with her heart and Dominica.

“Deep down inside, it still feels like home, and I want to put this little island on the map,” she said.

In 2018, LaFond represented Dominica at the Commonwealth Games, winning a bronze medal in the triple jump, a first for the Caribbean island nation.

[Watch LaFond compete at the 2018 Grenada Invitational]

LaFond attended the University of Maryland, and studied media and communications while competing as a hurdler, high jumper, long jumper and triple jumper.

While at Maryland, LaFond set a school women’s triple jump record (44 feet, 2.75 inches), a record that still stands. She won several All-American honors and was named Mid-Atlantic Indoor Field Athlete of the Year by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association in 2013 and 2015.

After graduating in 2015, LaFond said, she took the advice of the University of Maryland track and field coach Frank Costello to continue pursuing the triple jump after college.

A year later, LaFond arrived at her first Olympics in Rio. But bad luck struck just days before the qualification round.

LaFond suffered a hamstring injury and her Olympic prospects were derailed. She finished 37th, or last place, in the qualification round with a 12.82-meter jump (42 feet, 0.72 inches).

LaFond’s personal best is 14.57 meters (47 feet, 9.6 inches), at the Diamond League Meeting in Doha, Qatar, on May 28. She is ranked 12th in the world.

In February 2020, LaFond qualified for the Tokyo Olympics triple jump at the University at Albany Winter Classic Competition with a 14.33-meter jump (47 feet, 0.17 inches).

The women’s Olympic triple jump qualifying standard is 14.32 meters (46 feet, 11.7 inches).

Over the past five years, LaFond has been a teaching assistant for special education classes at Kennedy High. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in special education.

Outside of her job, LaFond lifts weights, trains and competes around the world. After schools she would head to Churchill High for evening practice.

LaFond took the spring semester off this year to train for the Olympics. She said many of her students didn’t realize their teacher was an Olympian until it was time for her to say goodbye. They were surprised.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Tokyo Olympics were postponed and LaFond had to adapt quickly. She put together a home gym in her basement, so she could lift weights to keep up her strength while stay-at-home orders were in place and gyms were closed.

“When you don’t have your accessibility to your training situations for so long, you really just kind of evolve with it,” she said.

LaFond left Rio in 2016 in both physical and emotional pain. But that only motivated her more to return to the Olympics.

Now, LaFond is ready for Tokyo with a completely different mindset and feelings compared to when she went to Rio.

“I think it’s more peace than I was expecting and I think it’s because I feel prepared,” LaFond said. “I mean, I think at Rio I didn’t feel –– I always say I didn’t feel elite.

“I feel like I’m coming into this with a lot more experience with … crazy better fitness, better technique, consistent good coaching. And just all in all, more confidence in myself as an athlete.”