Is Keturah Orji a natural jumper?
Her mother, Nicole Orji, believes so. She recalls infant Keturah trying to stand up on her lap, walking at seven months, and as an 11-month-old, running around the church in her white christening dress.
Her coach, Vanessa Benfatti, also agrees. To Benfatti, a former sprinter at Morris Catholic who still holds the county record in the 400 meters, “95 percent of what Keturah does is her natural ability.” That is how Orji can pick things up so quickly – like the triple jump last spring – and “make her body do what she wants it to do.”
As for Keturah herself? Not so much. The Mount Olive junior still looks down as she storms the triple jump runway, searching for landmarks for each phase of the process.
All will agree that Orji has far exceeded expectations this spring. She won the New Balance Nationals triple jump title with a new state record of 43 feet, 9 1/4 inches. She also finished second in the long jump at NBN, raising her own Morris County record to 20-6 1/4.
Though Orji was briefly happy with her success, she is never satisfied.
“It’s getting better, but it’s not perfect,” said Orji, the All Daily Record Girls Track and Field Athlete of the Year for the second year in a row. “If it was perfect, I would have jumped farther.”
After Orji finished second in the Championship of America triple jump at Penn Relays, Benfatti and assistant coach Sirajj Ziyad tried to break down the hop-step-jump technique in the simplest possible way. They asked Orji what her goal was – 42 feet – and set marks on the runway for the phases of the approach.
She didn’t reach that goal until the NJSIAA Meet of Champions. At least, not officially. But Benfatti insists that Orji fouled a 43-foot jump at the Group III meet.
Orji defended her MOC triple jump title and broke the state record with a 42-6 1/2, stretching out her second phase – the hop – and trying to get height as she soars through the air and into the sand pit. Orji also repeated as the state long jump champ, but she improve on the Morris County record of 20-2 she had set at Morris Hills Relays six weeks earlier.
“She’s a bear when she’s not getting what she wants,” Benfatti said. “But she’s a bear almost in a positive way, because she has such high goals, she will do everything she has to do. … For her, it’s not about the hype. It’s not about people cheering for her. It’s about her accomplishing her goals at the end of the day. Every time she steps on the track she expects to accomplish her goals.”
Benfatti and Ziyad recalculated the marks, now planning for a 43-foot jump. And last Saturday morning in North Carolina, Orji’s coaches and teammates kept repeating “43” over and over in funky accents.
“We woke up in the morning, and the first thing we said was, ’43,’ ” Marauders junior sprinter Suzie Nimoh said. “Whenever you say a number like that, she gets a big smile and she’s focused on jumping that. When she was jumping, we started yelling, ’44!’ ”
A former Level 8 gymnast, Orji excelled in the vault and was known for “having springs in my legs.” She switched to track and field when she got to Mount Olive because she was always the fastest when playing tag with friends. Nicole Orji thought her daughter would do pole vault or high jump, but instead she became a sprinter and long jumper. Triple jump came a year later, and Benfatti admits it took a bit of persuasion to let Orji try it.
Ziyad taught her the steps and said “just jump.” Orji’s first attempt in an early season dual meet was more than 35 feet. She fouled her second, and her third was 39-2 1/4, a school record.
“When I first started, I didn’t know how good I was,” she said. “Everyone’s going crazy over 39, and I was like, ‘I don’t know what that means.’ I just knew I could long jump, and triple jump is another jump, so I wanted to try it.”
Orji won the county long jump title and broke her own meet record while winning the triple jump (40-1 1/2). She also won both jumps at the NJAC Large Schools Championships, North 1 Group III – along with the 100 and 200 meters — and overall Group III this spring.
“At first, I thought triple jump was harder,” Orji said. “But now that I’ve gotten the hang of triple jump, I think long jump’s actually harder. … Running, I like the 200 the most. Jumping, it’s hard to choose one. It always goes back and forth. One day I love long jump, and the next day I love triple jump.”
Nicole Orji half-seriously said she’s already saving up for a trip to watch her daughter compete in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. More immediately, Keturah remains open regarding her college search, saying only that she is “not going all the way across the country” and would prefer “somewhere warm because it’s easy to train.”
Said Nicole Orji, “She set a goal, and she’s not going to quit until she sees herself where she wants to be.”