ATHENS — Georgia track and field coach Wayne Norton said Jamaal Parker has already had three careers.
At Central Fellowship, Parker was a good athlete, taking home a GISA title as a senior, but he had barely scratched the surface of his potential. At King College, Parker was a two-time NAIA All-American, but he hoped for more. From there, he transferred to Georgia — a program that hadn’t had an SEC triple-jump champion since 1991.
Now, midway through his senior indoor season, Parker has added 7 feet to his distance since high school and is in contention to etch his name into Georgia’s record books.
“I feel like I’m making a mark,” Parker said. “The fact that there hasn’t been a triple jumper here in that many years to do that great, I feel like it would be a great accomplishment to do something like that, and it helps put the team on the map a little bit more.”
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Parker’s progress, however, hasn’t been without setbacks.
A year ago, the Macon native, whose mother played basketball at Mercer, was breezing through his most successful season to date, setting three personal records in the process. By the end of February, he was one week removed from a jump of 51 feet, 8 inches — a personal best — and was ranked 16th in the country, the cut off to reach nationals.
Teetering on the brink of qualifying, Parker didn’t want to take the risk that another triple jumper would top his mark and knock him out of nationals, so he headed to the Last Chance Meet at Virginia Tech to secure his place in the top 16.
Instead, his first jump ended with an ankle injury. At first it seemed minor enough, but after a few weeks, the swelling hadn’t gone down, and Parker couldn’t put any weight on it.
“Everything was just going great. My body felt great, I’d just placed third in SECs,” Parker said. “I just thought it was a little sprain and I’d be back in a few weeks.”
As it turned out, it was much worse than a sprain.
After six weeks of rest, Parker tried to test the ankle, but it wasn’t ready. Nationals had been a lost cause, and now he would miss his entire outdoor season, taking a redshirt instead.
“It was the worst looking ankle I’ve ever seen,” Norton said. “There was no dealing with it. It wasn’t just a nagging pain. It was just a matter of waiting.”
Time passed slowly for Parker, who had seen his career skyrocket, then tumble back to earth in a matter of weeks. Just when things seemed to be falling into place for him, the injury had snatched his goals away, and all he could do was sit, wait and hope for the best.
By August, however, he was back on his feet and hard at work rehabbing the ankle. When he hit the track again for the start of indoor season, he quickly picked up right where he had left off, opening the season with a third-place finish at the Kentucky Invitational. He won his last meet with a jump of 51-5, third-best this season in the SEC and he has two NCAA provisional qualifying marks heading into this weekend’s meet at Virginia Tech.
“I feel like I’m getting back to where I was before,” Parker said. “I was pretty confident I was back on track just because of the strength and conditioning that I’d been doing. I didn’t exactly know how far I’d go, but I felt like my ankle was in pretty good shape.”
Parker, however, isn’t resting on his laurels. The injury robbed him of experience at a crucial point in his development, and now he is on a quest to make up for lost time. He wants a jump of 52-6 by season’s end, not to mention earn a trip to nationals. He has a chance to help No. 12 Georgia to an SEC title while he’s at it.
But for all his success, Norton said there is plenty more in store for Parker. If he sticks with it, his best efforts could be four or five years away still, and a future in the triple jump appears bright.
“He’s not done,” Norton said. “He has a lot more potential as far as where he can go. In the next year-and-a-half, I think he’s going to improve dramatically because he’s still learning his event and still increasing his strength. He’s going to do some things here at Georgia he hasn’t done yet.”