Uudmae Setting Own Standard

FAYETTEVILLE -- Jaanus Uudmae doesn't recall when he first started following his father's footsteps in the sand.

Born just four months after his father, Jaak, won gold at the 1980 Olympic Games in the triple jump for the former Soviet Union, Uudmae would soon be accompanying his parents to the tracks in their native Estonia and imitating his father's leaps into the sand pit.

His mother, Maie, is a track coach and was a long jumper for the national team and Arkansas' senior All-American triple jumper enjoyed watching his parents coach other kids and compete.

"I was really young," Uudmae said with a chuckle. "I can't even remember. They tell me the stories. I was really little."

Just more than 24 years later, Uudmae is heading into the final two months of his collegiate outdoor career still seeking the lasting memory of his Razorback experience.

Already qualified for the NCAA Mideast Regional in both the triple and long jumps, Uudmae will likely only attempt three leaps in each of them Saturday at the McDonnell Invitational in Fayetteville.

Uudmae transferred to Fayetteville from Southern Illinois in 2002, but his last two years have been hampered by a left knee injury to his jumping leg that required corrective surgery.

After earning fifth and All-American honors indoors in 2003, Uudmae battled through the torn cartilage in his knee during the outdoor season, had the surgery back in Estonia that summer and missed the 2004 indoor campaign while rehabbing.

His best leap of the 2004 outdoor season was just 51-8.5 and he took sixth at the 2004 Mideast Regional, one place out of earning an automatic trip to the NCAAs.

"It's been tough on Jaanus," said Arkansas coach John McDonnell. "First, his father was an Olympic champion, so that's a lot of pressure. Then the injuries. He's a very level-headed young man. He's taken it all in stride and never got frustrated. I know he had to be frustrated at times, but he never showed it.

"I think he'll do some great things outdoors."

Finally healthy and able to hit a full offseason of training, Uudmae has been taking leaps and bounds since.

He set his personal best indoors or out with his winning leap of 53 feet, 10.5 inches at the Southeastern Conference Indoor Championships this February in Fayetteville.

While his teammates like James Hatch, Terry Gatson and Peter Kosgei took a string of surprising second places on the track surrounding the infield runway at the Randal Tyson Track Center, Uudmae leaped to a fourth-place finish that left Arkansas needing just three points in the 3,000 to win McDonnell's 40th NCAA title.

Uudmae -- who has never suffered a slip academically and is one of only four track athletes in the nation to boast a 4.0 grade-point average -- is back to hitting the marks he did when fully healthy two years ago.

He leapt 53-8.75 at the 2003 NCAAs. He cleared 53-6.5 last month.

Two weeks ago in Austin at the Texas Relays, Uudmae had his best outdoor opener ever with a leap of 53-7.

"It feels really nice," he said. "My first meet I started where I left off indoors. That was a confidence booster because we took a week off (after NCAA indoors) and started working on the basics again and lifting heavy.

"It felt really good."

Son of a hero
Located on the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe, Estonia won its independence from Russia in 1920, only to lose it again in 1941 when Germany occupied the country for three years during World War II.

The Soviet Union then occupied the Baltic state until the communist superpower began crumbling with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, leading Estonia to declare its independence once again in 1991.

While under Soviet domination, Estonia preserved its national pride partly through the success of the Olympic athletes who hailed from the occupied nation but were forced to compete under the hammer and sickle.

One of those national heroes was Jaak Uudmae, who won the 1980 triple jump with a distance of 56-9.25, the fourth-best leap ever at the time.

"It's a pretty big deal," Jaanus Uudmae said. "Estonia is a small country, so everybody knew about it. There's so few people with gold medals."

Only 12 athletes from Estonia won gold medals while under Soviet occupation and now Jaak Uudmae's medal hangs in a sports museum in the capital city of Tallinn the Uudmaes hail from.

Jaak Uudmae's Olympic success didn't earn his family much different status from his countryman.

"Everybody in the Soviet Union was pretty much middle class," Uudmae said. "There was no unemployment, but at the same time there was nowhere to go to. I wouldn't say it was a bad life.

"When you went to the store, you never knew what they were going to have. My mom would go to the store and she wouldn't know what she was going to cook until she saw what they had. That's what you would eat that day.

"That's how it was for pretty much everyone."

Jaanus was 8 when the "Singing Revolution" began in Estonia, 9 years old when the Berlin Wall fell and 11 when the nation celebrated its independence yet again.

"I remember that quite well," he said. "It was an exciting time."

Things are still exciting back in Tallinn, where Uudmae returns each summer and Christmas.

The area was originally settled more than 3,500 years ago and the city became a bustling port and marketplace on the Gulf of Finland in the 10th century.

Now it is a center of information and technology with tall glass and steel buildings, corporate headquarters, large shopping malls and a renovated airport that handles more and more passengers and cargo every day.

The city and nation have certainly come a long way since the bare grocery store shelves of Uudmae's youth.

"Things do change," Uudmae said. "Buildings go up. Some people are really well off. Things change. It's sort of like Northwest Arkansas. Things are being built."

Uudmae will return home again this summer, but not before he'd like to make a detour across the gulf to Helsinki, Finland, for the 2005 World Track and Field Championships.

'You Always Try Your Best'
While his father never got to compete under the Estonian flag, Jaanus Uudmae hopes to get that chance by hitting the necessary standard.

The 'B' standard is 54-8 and the 'A' standard is 56-1.25, both requiring monumental improvements for him before the August meet, a nice intersection of personal and team goals for the Razorbacks.

"He has another foot in him in the triple jump where he can get up in the high 54, 55 range," said Arkansas jumps coach Dick Booth. "If he does that at the right time, he'll be right in the mix at the national meet.

"If he does that, he'll do what he needs to for us."

For Jaanus, following in his father's footsteps was never difficult until he was injured.

Until then, he was on track with the marks his father made as he progressed to the gold medal at age 26.

"It wasn't too bad when I was little," Jaanus Uudmae said. "He didn't start track until late in high school. So I was beating his marks or matching them every year.

"But right now, he's way ahead of me. I need to improve to catch up to him on a year by year basis."

Jaanus trains with his father every time he goes home, a luxury Booth doesn't always have when he sends his youngsters home for the summer or holidays.

"It's huge," said Booth, who has coached 11 Olympians, 38 NCAA champions and four Olympic medalists. "It really is. That's where his understanding comes from. He grew up with it and he has great support at home and a lot of knowledge back there.

"When he goes home for Christmas or the summer, I don't have to worry about what he's doing. I know he's getting another perspective and it's all good."

Uudmae's father gave him a lot of advice over the years, but sticking it out until the end is the one piece that has stuck with him the most.

"Always compete until the last attempt," Uudmae said. "It's not over when you still have a jump left. That's what gets you better. You always try your best."

Following that advice has gotten Uudmae this far through some rough times and now he's positioned himself to improve on his current favorite memory of taking fourth at the NCAA indoor meet after two years of injury and rehab.

"Hopefully my best memory hasn't happened yet," he said.

Hawgs Daily Top Stories