Photo Credit: Dan Loughlin/NC Runners
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By Ashley Tysiac - MileSplit Correspondent
Jieem Bullock remembers it like it was yesterday.
His first leap off the board a year ago at New Balance Nationals Indoor seemed like any other long jump attempt.
"I thought it was a normal 22 (foot jump) because it didn't feel any different, anything special," he said.
But you have to remember, in 2019, the North Brunswick (NC) High School athlete had barely made the competition list for the championship section. As a junior -- and as one of the last accepted entries -- he wasn't even thinking about winning. He just hoped to put on a strong showing against some of the country's top athletes.
But then Bullock heard a collective "woah" ring through the crowd once he hit the pit -- a sign that maybe he didn't just land another ordinary jump.
He turned to his coach, Darry Dyson, in the stands, who rattled off critiques. Bullock curiously walked up to the official tracking the measurements. The official read: 7.42 meters.
Not familiar with metric, Bullock once looked back again at Dyson?
What does that mean?
His coach held up two fingers on one hand, four on the other. Bullock set a new personal best in the long jump by over a foot ... on his first attempt.
And it was that mark which essentially set in motion so much to come. Bullock's massive PR of 24-4.25 held, and it earned the virtually unknown talent the upset win. The competition pushed him to reach a threshold he had never hit before. Bullock could hardly process it.
"I really didn't comprehend that until I got into the plane going back home a couple hours later," Bullock said.
And so a year later, Bullock, who leapt all the way up to the No. 21 recruit in the Class of 2020, will return to the scene of his biggest milestone accomplishment. The returning NBNI long jump champion will look to defend his title at this year's national competition at The Armory in New York City from March 13-15.
After last year's breakout performance, Bullock said he now possesses a much stronger mindset every time he takes the field.
"It was pretty much a big confidence boost," Bullock said. "It just leaves me wanting to do better things."
A year later, much has changed for Bullock since that fateful event at The Armory. He is no longer just a well known North Carolina talent -- he is one of the better jumpers in the country.
And with national familiarity comes attention, in all forms. Spectators come up to him after meets to congratulate him on his stellar performances. College recruiters came after him in a frenzy in hopes of bringing him to their respective schools.
* Bullock won the long jump and high jump at the NCHSAA Class 3A Championships
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Bullock ultimately signed a letter of intent to compete for Louisiana State University in November, joining a strong jumps program in Baton Rouge.
And if you look at his improvement in the past year, Bullock has made dramatic gains. Not only did he secure a new outdoor PR of 24-5 in the long jump, which earned him a fourth-place finish at New Balance Nationals Outdoor. But his clearance of 6 feet, 10.25 inches in the high jump translated to a third-place medal.
Bullock has shown particularly great strides in the high jump, improving by over eight inches from his indoor to outdoor season in 2019.
Personally, though, he faced a more difficult challenge than increased national attention: Knee surgery. He underwent an operation last August to repair a meniscus tear in his jumping leg.
So the past year has been mainly characterized by rebuilding in the midst of success.
"We're still working on his strength, endurance and stamina that we're trying to concentrate on to get him ready," North Brunswick assistant track and field coach Darryl Dyson said.
What does injury recovery look like for the national champion?
It consists of regular physical therapy, strength training, endurance work and adequate rest-arguably the most important element of the process, according to Bullock and his coaches. Bullock also hits the weight room to work on his power, from lifting to completing box jump circuits.
"Whatever happens, happens," Bullock said of New Balance Nationals Indoor. "But I'm going to try my hardest regardless and mentally prepare myself for that day as much as I can."
"It's made him mentally aware of his body more so now than ever," Dyson said.
Coaches didn't enter Bullock into any competitions until the back half of this year's indoor season to allow him enough rest. In January, Bullock made his indoor debut at The VA Showcase, where he threw down impressive marks of 24-0 in the long jump and 6-8 in the high jump. He swept both events.
Following his performance in Virginia, he earned a double at his Class 3A state championships in North Carolina just a couple of weeks later. Bullock and his coaches felt he was returning back to form just fine.
"Just going meet by meet and just knowing that everything is going to get better," Bullock said. "I'm going to get back to normal and I just need to keep going."
Going into nationals, the goal will be plainly obvious. But defending his long jump title will be no easy task.
He will face stiff competition from Jaden Price-Whitehead of Upper Dublin (PA) and Johnny Brackins, from Lee's Summit (MO). The two athletes hold the US No. 1 and US No. 2 marks in the long jump this indoor season. Bullock is right behind them at US No. 3.
Bullock will also look to win the high jump.
But he says he doesn't feel any pressure coming in as last year's champion, despite not being fully healthy. He instead said he's going to enter the meet focused solely on his own technique and performance -- one of the few elements of the contest he can control, he added.
"Whatever happens, happens," Bullock said. "But I'm going to try my hardest regardless and mentally prepare myself for that day as much as I can."
If winning two indoor state titles constitutes his 80-percent effort, maybe spectators will witness Bullock trump his upset win last season with a peak performance at New Balance Nationals Indoor in a few weeks.
"He's on somewhat of a roll, and we're looking for him as he approaches that 100-percent mark for his knee to get even better," Dyson said.
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Ashley Tysiac is a correspondent for NC Runners and MileSplit USA. You can follow her on Twitter @ajtysiac