Athletics has been a series of jumps into the unknown for Great Britain's Lorraine Ugen. Fortunately, her biggest jump yet put her on the Portland World Indoor Championships podium. Here's how she went from student standout to world-class.

Sand skimmer

Raised in south-east London, Lorraine Ugen began her sporting life as a gymnast. “I’d cartwheel everywhere as a kid, even in the grocery store,” she recalls. But when she grew too tall for gymnastics, and on the encouragement of a schoolteacher at Townley Grammar School in Bexleyheath, she tried her hand at athletics.

The young Ugen began life a sprinter before graduating to the long jump. She found the event “fun” but was by no means an immediate superstar.

“When I first started long jump I was awful,” admits Ugen, who finished seventh and last (it was a straight final) with a best of 4.93m on her English Schools’ Championships debut aged 15.

“My technique was awful and I never used to be able to hit the board. I had no height in my jumps and just used to skim the sand. I remember people telling me that one day I would be good, but I didn’t see it.” 

Lorraine Ugen British Indoor Championships 2016 ()

 GOT HEIGHT? Since starting out as a sand skimmer, Ugen has mastered the art of getting high to go long

Joy of six

Being naturally “stubborn” and eager to improve under the guidance of her first coach, Guy Spencer, Ugen started to progress. “As soon as he taught me to get some height from the board it all started to come together a bit more,” she says.

In 2009 Ugen smashed through the 6-metre barrier for the first time, winning the English U20 and English Schools’ titles. “To jump over 6m was a big breakthrough for me,” she adds.

Go west!

The Londoner continued to improve and by 2011 had extended her PB to a useful 6.46m. However her form at championships had become a cause for concern. At the 2009 European junior champs she finished 21st, more than 40cm short of her best. At the following year’s world junior champs she finished 17th out of 20 competitors with a SW (season’s worst) of 5.56m. In 2011 she no-marked at the European U23 champs in Ostrava. Sitting in a pile of disappointed rubble, Ugen looked to the New World.

“I just couldn’t hit the board, and that is when I decided to go the States,” she explains of her big move. “I thought ‘I need a fresh start and to find a coach that can help me fix this’.”

Recruited by Texas Christian University, the Londoner from Thamesmead crossed the Atlantic Ocean to start the next chapter of her life.

Lorraine Ugen competes in the 2012 British Champs ()

 Reppin' TCU at the 2012 British Championships, Ugen missed the Olympic qualifier by a heart-breaking 1cm

London falling 

The move started to pay dividends in 2012. She leapt 6.74m at the British Championships, adding 20cm to her PB. As good as that improvement was, it left Ugen an agonising one centimetre – the thickness of a AAA battery – short of the Olympic qualification mark.

“I had jumped 6.83m [over the standard of 6.75m] early in the season, but it was windy,” she says. “I felt all season I could have made the team, so to have missed by one centimetre crushed me.”

Ugen, aged 20 at the time, had missed her home games by the smallest of margins there is.

Technical transformation

Undeterred, the ever-persistent Ugen, now under the guidance of her current coach Shawn Jackson, made another jump forward in 2013.

She was encouraged by placing fifth “and finally reaching a final” at that year’s NCCA Indoor Championships. Later that year she secured victory in the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, courtesy of a PB 6.77m. Winning the prestigious US collegiate title was a huge moment.

“I thought the NCAA championships was at a similar level to the world championships or Europeans. So if I can do well at NCAAs, I can also do well at the top international meets,” Ugen says.

She credits much of her success to Coach Jackson. Conceding that she does not have great spatial awareness (snap 🙋), pure repetition on the runway during practice has helped her reduce the no-marks that plagued her early career. Ugen also says Jackson has played a vital role in improving her sprinting form. “My stride was long and unpredictable, but he has helped shorten my stride and made my running more controlled,” she adds.

Lorraine Ugen at the 2013 World Championships ()

 Ugen made her senior international debut at the 2013 Moscow World Championships, where she fouled out in the qualifying round

Go pro

In 2014 she took the NCAA indoor title, but otherwise suffered a frustrating season, finishing fifth at the Commonwealth Games with a modest best of 6.39m. It was a “kick up the butt” as she sought to reset herself as an athlete.

Before graduating in May 2015, the film, TV and digital media major made the conscious decision to prepare for her future as a pro. “A lot of great college athletes don’t make a great transition to being a pro. I had to make sure I was on point for this,” she says.

For the first time in her career, Ugen took on a regimented nutritional plan. “I used to eat what I wanted – candy, sweets, fast food,” she says with a smile. “Now I make sure I have a protein bar or protein shakes two hours before training, it gives me more energy and really makes a difference.”

She has also regulated her sleep pattern. Staying up “until two or three in the morning” is no longer the norm. She now has a more sensible bedtime: “I now make sure I get my full complement [of sleep] so I am recharged and ready to go.”

Podium performance

Her planning helped make her transition to the pro ranks a smooth one. Choosing to continue her long jump training at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, last season she enjoyed the best outdoor season of her career, soaring out to a PB 6.92m at the Doha Diamond League, two weeks after showing her new speed with a PB 11.42 100m back in Florida.

More jumps forward were to follow. She was top three at a further two Diamond League meets, claimed silver at the British championships and finished fifth at the Beijing World Championships with a best of 6.85m.

Yet it has been her form this indoor season that has most caught the eye. She was the overall women’s long jump champion on the inaugural IAAF World Indoor Tour, secured with second and first place finishes in Stockholm and Glasgow, respectively.

She then produced the best indoor competition of her life at the Portland World Indoor Championships. Sitting back in fifth place after four attempts, she jumped a British indoor record 6.93m in round five to steal the bronze medal at the death.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet, even though I felt like a realistic challenger for a medal,” says Ugen. “It has given me a huge amount of confidence knowing I can get on the podium.”

Lorraine Ugen jumps PB at Doha Diamond League ()

 Thought Diamonds were a girl's best friend? PBs are!

Seven-metre set

Ugen reckons there’s a lot more to come. She admits that her habit of dropping one of her feet on landing is losing her crucial CMs. Fix this and bigger distances will surely come.

“What I love is I can see technically there are improvements to make,” she says. “This gives me the confidence that if I can get these things under control, I can get the jumps out there.”

Jumping beyond 7 metres in Rio is in her sights, but she is not getting ahead of herself, for now it’s one jump at a time.

“In order to get on the podium [in Rio], I know I have to do some extraordinary things in practice.”