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From suicidal thoughts to Olympic dreams: Tara Davis finds peace in pursuit of gold

Tara Davis, of the United States, competes in the qualification rounds.
U.S. long jumper Tara Davis competes in qualifying at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday.
(Matthias Schrader / Associated Press)

One and done.

That is how Tara Davis put herself in Tuesday’s Olympic long jump finals.

Davis needed only one jump in Sunday’s qualifying round to meet the standard for the finals and position herself for a shot at a gold medal.

She spent the rest of the session enjoying herself.

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Davis consulted with her father, Ty, who doubles as her coach and was seated in the second row at Olympic Stadium. She mugged for an omnipresent television camera, blowing kisses. She joked with other competitors, watched shot put and 400-meter competitions and borrowed a pen from an official to record the metric marks on the runway so that she could later convert them to feet and inches.

The unkind temperatures and high humidity in Tokyo have made for a difficult Olympic Games for athletes not used to the brutal conditions.

Finally, she sought and was given permission to leave.

“I didn’t want to be out there too long,” she said. “It’s pretty hot.”

When Davis, 22, returns to the stadium Tuesday, she will have a heavier workload. American teammate Brittney Reese, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist, Malaika Mihambo of Germany and Maryna Bekh-Romanchuk of Ukraine are among the contenders.

But Davis’ formidable talent could carry her to a medal, possibly gold.

Her first Olympic experience is the culmination of a quest that began when she was 4 years old and came into sharp focus during a record-setting career at Agoura High. Though her college career derailed for several years because of a poor coaching fit, injuries, a family situation, the COVID-19 pandemic and mental health issues — including suicidal thoughts — Davis found stability and happiness, and once again took flight.

In June, she finished second at the U.S. Olympic trials with a mark of 23 feet 1¼ inches.

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Davis does not need an Olympic victory to build a personal brand. She already has a huge social media following. More than 280,000 subscribe to a YouTube channel featuring content produced with boyfriend Hunter Woodhall, a Paralympic medal-winning runner who also will compete in Japan this month. Davis recently announced that the couple had an endorsement deal with an athletic wear company.

Davis’ international profile, however, could grow exponentially if she wins gold.

Just don’t be fooled by her bubbly personality, Woodhall cautions.

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“She’s a gamer,” he said. “She’s bad to the bone.”

Davis, the youngest of five children, has been on track for Olympic stardom since childhood. After watching siblings participate in a track club her father started in Wylie, Texas, she wanted to join.

Her mother, Rayshon, said her youngest child loved winning ribbons, especially if they were pink — until she learned that pink was for fifth place, not first.

“From that point on,” her mother said, “she never liked pink ribbons again.”

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When Davis was 11, Ty got a job in California and the family moved to Calabasas.

“We loaded up the truck,” her mother said, laughing, “and moved to Bev-er-ly.”

Initially, Davis struggled in youth competitions against talented and highly trained California girls. She told her parents she planned to move on from the sport. But after finding a patient hurdles coach she improved.

Tara Davis celebrates with her mother, Rayshon Davis, after finishing second at the U.S. Olympic trials.
Tara Davis celebrates with her mother, Rayshon Davis, after finishing second at the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., on June 26.
(Steph Chambers / Getty Images)
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Tara Davis celebrates with her father, Ty Davis, and mother Rayshon Davis at the U.S. Olympic trials.
(Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

“She really started winning and growing,” her father said. “She said, ‘You know what? I’m doing pretty good. Let’s continue this track thing.’”

At Agoura High, she won state titles in the 100 meters, long jump and triple jump.

During a track meet in Idaho, she also met Woodhall. The Utah native was born with fibular hemimelia, a congenital defect that required amputation of his legs below the knee at 11 months. That did not stop him from developing into a scholarship athlete at the University of Arkansas.

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After seeing Woodhall compete in a 400-meter race, Davis gave him a hug.

“I don’t know why I gave him a hug, I just had to give him a hug,” she said last month, “and it all kind of started from there.”

Said Woodhall: “After a 400, you’re a little bit delirious anyway, so I was like, I’m not really sure what’s going in here — but I’m not mad about it.”

A friendship that began with text messages and social media blossomed.

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“She’s kind of my rock,” Woodhall said.

“I don’t think either of us would really be at the same level without each other,” Davis said.

Tara Davis, right, celebrates with Hunter Woodall after finishing second at the U.S. track and field trials.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

“Now it’s just time to have fun, you know, go out there and kick some booty.

Tara Davis

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After high school, Davis accepted a scholarship to Georgia. But she soon was homesick and chafed under a coaching style that differed from a more gentle approach employed by her father and youth coach. Also, she said, she suffered from back injuries that she was told were muscle spasms. There also were emotional challenges from her parents’ divorce.

She transferred to Texas but had no way of knowing that she would not compete for nearly two years.

Georgia blocked her from competing right away and tests revealed fractured vertebrae that required rest, Davis said. Six days before she finally was scheduled to compete, she suffered a broken ankle. She competed in the Big 12 Conference indoor championship meet, but the outdoor season was shut down because of COVID-19.

“During COVID, I had time to really think about what I wanted and where I wanted be in life,” she said. “This was the first-ever time not having anyone telling me what to do; not having track in my life.”

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Davis, however, said she also fell into depression. She experienced anxiety and panic attacks.

“When the depression got really bad, when suicidal thoughts started coming in,” she said, “I was like, I probably should have some more professional help come in.”

With the help of therapy and support from her family, Woodhall and pets, Davis’ mental health improved. She has shared parts of her journey on social media.

“I’m glad I went through that experience just because it shaped me as a new person,” she said, adding, “I think that’s what people are drawn to, how open I am about mental health.”

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Davis’ joy for competing is expected to be on display Tuesday. Though there will be no spectators, that will not prevent Davis from performing as if the stands are full.

She will be upbeat. She might dance or sing.

“People kind of underestimate her because she’s this fun, bubbly girl on the track,” Woodhall said. “But she’s not somebody you want to mess with.”

Or, as her father said, “When it’s her turn to go, she turns into a different monster.”

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Davis’ mother said she planned to watch from Orlando, Fla., where families of U.S. athletes were invited to travel for an expenses-paid trip.

Weeks ago, she composed a text, reminding her daughter that the stadium might be empty but “your fans are in your head, and you clap it up just like they’re in the stands.” She instructed her to keep it, so that it can be read before competitions.

Davis was animated Sunday before and after her qualifying leap. Afterward, she said the hard part was getting to the Olympics, and then to the finals.

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“Now it’s just time to have fun,” she said. “You know, go out there and kick some booty.

“I’m at the Olympic finals. What?”

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.


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