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Detroit track star sets records, eyes Olympics

Posted at 2:49 PM, Feb 29, 2016

Weeknights on the track, Isaiah Griffith spends hours training at his happy place.

Griffith, a senior at Detroit East English Village High School, set the Michigan state record for the triple jump three times in the last month.

Each time he has beaten the previous mark set by himself a few days earlier.

"I would be remised if I didn't say that I really do think Isaiah has the potential to be on a medal stand at the Olympics," his coach, Derek Atlas said during a recent practice.

Griffith doesn't shy away from those expectations.

"Right now, my goal is 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. That's my main goal," he told me.

Atlas began coaching Griffith when he was only eight years old. He could tell there was talent in the kid from the beginning.

Griffith was named a Junior Olympian before he was 10 years old. He was winning national jumping competitions for his age group when he was 13 years old.

Jumping through adversity

For all of the reasons to push for his success, Griffith said there's one main key to it all.

"The whole purpose is to make my mother proud. Every practice, every time I work hard, every jump, it's just even more of a big step to make her proud," Griffith said.

When he was setting records as a teenager, Isaiah was watching him mom die.

Pulmonary hypertension was slowly killing her.

"She had a lot of illness around her heart. She just never told a lot of people. When it started getting the best of her, I was 14. I had to learn how to change the medicine," he recalled.

That's a lot of growing up to do for a kid just entering high school.

Multiple surgeries are some of Isaiah's last memories of his mom, but so too are the images of her wheeling oxygen into his track and field events.

"She was always my number one fan."

Griffith lives with his sister and her two young children. Their dad isn't in the picture.

"She has two children," Isaiah said of his sister. "A three-year-old and a one-year-old. It's pretty good. We don't have a car right now." 

He said he gets rides from football players, and track and field staff members who are happy to help.

The call that reinvigorated his passion

In the face of all of those challenges, it would be easy to be frustrated.

Isaiah admitted he has his low moments.

"I do get frustrated, but I gotta keep that purpose in mind, that motivation that keeps me from quitting," he revealed.

Picking up the phone after his mother died, Griffith made one call that helped steer him on a steady path.

He reached out to the man who helped him find a passion for track and field over five years prior, Coach Derek Atlas.

"When the phone call came, he said, 'Coach, can I come over there with you?'" Atlas recalled. "I explained him, 'Listen, we run a rigorous program. No shenanigans."

Griffith said at first, he was just looking for the right man to help him succeed in the long jump and triple jump.

What he got was much more.

"I started realizing how much more he is, not just as a coach. He's always making sure I'm doing what I am supposed to do," Griffith said of Atlas.

The goal of the 2020 Olympics is still blazing hot, but the East English Village track and field program has bigger plans for its senior long jumping star.

Griffith said he wants to become the first male in his family to attend college. He's working to receive a scholarship.

"He does not like to lose, and when you have that type of grit and perseverance, and channel that into athletic competition, that's a win-win situation," Atlas told me.

"That kid's gonna blow up."

Griffith is thankful for his coach, for straightening him out after his darkest days.

The triple jump is his biggest strength, but since it's not an outdoor event in MHSAA competition, Atlas has his star pupil focused on a well-rounded display.

Griffith has added to his repertoire, with his main thoughts still at the top of his list.

"It's just: my mom, my mom, my mom, and that Olympic gold. So right now, I can't get frustrated too much, because I gotta stay focused," he said.

Brad Galli is a sports anchor and reporter at WXYZ Detroit. Follow Brad on Twitter @BradGalli