Muhammad Halim is low-key and humble, not one to get too worked up. His track coach at Albion, Wayne Wadhams, remembers Halim as “a quiet kid who worked hard.”
But Halim says he is living a dream right now. The former Albion track star will fly to London on Wednesday. He is competing in the Olympics, going against the best in the world on Aug. 7.
“It’s really exciting,” he said by phone from Washington, D.C., where he works in nearby Bethesda, Md., as a financial analyst for Host Hotels and Resorts. “I don’t know if it’s hit me. I don’t know if my mom is ready to process it.”
Halim, 25, will be a rarity among the track and field Olympians: a world-class talent with a day job.
“I’m just a working guy,” he said. “I’m not a professional. For me this is still fun.”
But Halim is no lightweight. The 6-foot-3 jumper left with Albion’s school record — nearly 47 feet — accomplished when he was a junior. He moved midway through his senior year and didn’t compete for Albion or his new school in Georgia. He was lightly recruited due to his inactive senior year.
But he found a spot at Cornell University, where he not only set the school’s all-time record — a wind-aided 54-foot, 8-inch jump – but Halim was the NCAA champion in 2008.
He hasn’t stopped since then, continuing to improve his technique, making incremental improvements. It culminated in December when he returned to an invitational at Cornell and pulled off a personal best of 55 feet, 4 inches.
That met the Olympic-qualifying standard and earned him a spot on the U.S. Virgin Islands team. He is one of seven Olympic athletes for the Virgin Islands, a U.S. territory in the Caribbean with a population of about 100,000.
When the athletes walk into the stadium as part of the opening ceremonies, Halim joked that he will be easily visible on TV due to the small delegation from the Virgin Islands.
Moving to Orleans County
A hurricane hit and devastated the tourism industries in the island of St. Croix about two decades ago. Halim had family connections in Orleans County, and they convinced his parents to move to Medina when Halim was 6 or 7, he said.
Halim switched to the Albion district by the eighth grade and was drawn to the jumping events in track.
“I’m not shocked or surprised,” said Wadhams, Halim’s Albion coach, about the Olympic-bound star. “He was a competitor.”
Wadhams keeps a photo of Halim in his office. Halim is there with other Albion athletes who competed at states.
Halim, in an interview, mentioned the influence of Wadhams and Jonathan Priset, the Albion track jump coach. Although he didn’t graduate from Albion, Halim continued to list it as his hometown while at Cornell and in his international competitions.
“Albion, that’s my home,” Halim said. “I still have good friends there. That’s where I came up.”
Priset worked closely with Halim for three years, from ninth to 11th grade. Halim was driven to excel, putting in the physical work and also studying the subtleties of the event.
“He was always searching to get better,” said Priset, who now coaches at Williamsville East. “He always tried his best and that was a real inspiration to the others on the team.”
Nothing in track and field beats up a body quite like the triple jump, Wadhams said. The athlete sprints, leaps, lands and leaps again, and then lands and leaps a final time. Track officials break it down into the approach phase, the hop phase, the step phase and the jump phase.
“It’s very physically demanding,” Wadhams said. “The triple jump really beats your legs up.”
To compete at Halim’s level, Priset said a triple jumper needs to excel at all phases, moving from one jump to another without losing speed. Ideally, each of the three jumps should be the same distance, about 18.5 feet in Halim’s case.
“He was always searching for the understanding of technique, which was really neat to see from someone in high school,” Priset said.
Halim continues to work with his coach from Cornell, Nathan Taylor, who is coaching the Virgin Islands jumpers for the Olympics. Taylor sends videos to Halim with workouts. They have tried to get together in person at least once every two months since Halim’s Cornell days.
“The triple jump is such a beautiful event,” Halim said. “There’s so much power.”
He has avoided the injuries that derail many triple jumpers. He suspects his full-time job has actually been an asset, helping to preserve his body.
“I’ve been less intense, but smarter about the way I train,” Halim said. “You want to feel great when you go into competitions. You don’t want to feel banged up.”
Priset has kept tabs on Hasim’s jumping career and has been astounded with each passing year, how Hasim continues to push back the measuring tape.
“I’ve been following him because he was such a big talent when he was at Albion,” Priset said. “It’s really crazy how far he goes.”
Halim also competed in the long jump at Albion and Cornell. His younger brother Hasheem, 22, just finished an All-American year at Virginia Tech as a triple jumper.
Halim said he goes into the Olympics projected as a “middle of the pack” triple jumper when compared with the best on the planet. The top American jumper, Christian Taylor, can go 59 feet. “He’s pushing world record territory,” Halim said.
Halim and the other triple jumpers will compete Aug. 7, with the top 12 advancing to the finals on Aug. 9.
The Albion star said he will be fulfilling a life-long goal.
“I’m really happy,” he said. “It has all happened slowly, where every year I’ve been able to get a little bit better. I’ve been fortunate.”