After stellar performances at the Tyson Invitational in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Nebraska’s athletic record books need to be rewritten.
This season has seen many upheavals in the school rankings. For example, second hurdle Darius Luff placed third all-time in the 60-meter hurdles at the Tyson Invitational.
But no event has changed its landscape quite like the long jump, where sophomore Darby Thomas and rookie Mikaelle Assani both cracked the top 10. A 1-inch jump propelled her to third all-time in school history.
Both jumpers won their respective events, with Thomas winning the open long jump competition open to all competitors and Assani winning the crown in the long jump invitation, a competition only a select few are lucky enough to enter. .
Not only were those jumps the best at the Tyson Invitational, but they made up the two best distances of any Big Ten long jumper this season.
“When I found out about this, I was just in awe,” Thomas said. “In practice, we constantly look at the record books, and to see my name with these great athletes that coach Pepin talks about and raves about is just an honor.”
Assani’s leap is more impressive considering that it happened in his first career collegiate encounter. Assani was a prolific long jumper in Germany before arriving in Nebraska, ranking 6th in the world for long jumper under the age of 20.
The transition from athletics in Germany to the United States came with some adjustments. In Germany, most of Assani’s athletic coaches were unpaid and unaffiliated with a school, which led to a more amicable relationship than a player-coach relationship.
Assani has grown used to that and appreciates the number of assistants at Nebraska and the systems in place for coaches to help her.
The competitions were also different from those back in Germany, as the long jumpers were not split into multiple flights. Assani said she was also not used to multiple events taking place at the same time, with the men’s and women’s long jump competitions taking place simultaneously.
“[It’s] mainly depending on your level, people applaud you. So if people start clapping for a man, your rhythm as a woman is completely messed up,” Assani said. “Based on this, your approach no longer fits.”
Although there were differences in the structure of the competition, Assani didn’t let that faze her and she pulled off one of the best jumps in Husker history.
Thomas, meanwhile, had nailed the long jump in Nebraska in her previous two seasons. At the Big Ten Indoor Championships, she finished third her freshman year and fourth her sophomore year, but she knew there was room for improvement for 2022. She credits her improvement to the athletics head coach of the Nebraska Gary Pepin and assistant jumps coach Maxwell Heng, and trusting their meticulous guidance has helped her progress over the season.
“Something I’ve really worked on in training is staying on my feet and being confident in my abilities,” Thomas said. “Getting that muscle memory to help me fix it has made me progress a lot.”
With both jumpers having already set conference records so far this season and winning their respective events, there can be a lot of pressure following that and repeating the outstanding performances week after week.
With the Big Ten and NCAA indoor championships fast approaching, the stakes rise for each encounter to come. While both jumpers are aware of the pressure, neither is worried, as it is under pressure that they thrive.
“I like pressure because I can only do my best if I have pressure,” Assani said. “I never see pressure as a bad thing.”
A key element in both easing the pressure and using it as an advantage is how tight the long jump group is and how they push each other to be better in training. Apart from Assani and Thomas, the group is deep with talented jumpers.
Lishanna Ilves, a sophomore from Estonia, placed fourth in the Tyson Invitational long jump, and runner-up Ashely McElmurry finished eighth. With top talent from around the world training together, the group pushes itself to be the best it can be, because anyone can win the event.
“We’re all here to support each other and keep working hard, especially in small competitions where we’re just jumping against each other,” Thomas said. “They’re incredibly talented, and having them act like they’re not better than everyone else just makes it even better. They support us as much as we support them.
With both subclasses having strong foundations of drive and motivation, the Nebraska record books may have more new additions in the future.