COLUMBIA — Missouri freshman Jonathan Ilori was lining himself up for his second attempt in the triple jump Saturday at the Tom Botts Invitational at Audrey J. Walton Stadium.
Before he started running, he raised his long arms above his head and began clapping. He gestured at the audience of a few dozen to join him. When Ilori began his jump, his supporters clapped faster as he raced down the approach. He hit his mark and flew through the air: 49 feet, 6½ inches, a season best for Ilori.
"I like having the eyes on me," Ilori said. "It helps me perform because I know the audience is paying attention to me."
Ilori transferred from the Royal Hospital School in London to MU in January.
John Vernon, Ilori's coach in England thinks sending his athletes overseas will help them reach their full potential. Vernon contacted Missouri assistant coach Kareem Streete-Thompson about Ilori.
"After a few conversations (with Ilori), I was very intrigued," Streete-Thompson said. "I knew Jonathan had performed well but had very raw talent that I thought would be great to develop."
Another factor that impressed Streete-Thompson was Ilori's education. Ilori speaks three different languages: French, German and his parents' native Nigerian.
But Ilori still had to choose Missouri. He had been getting looks from other schools including Texas A&M, where his training partner in England, Babatunde Amosu, decided to go. Ultimately, Ilori chose the Tigers because Streete-Thompson would be his coach.
"When I talked to Coach Streete, he focused on how far he could take me in the triple. Other schools wanted me to do all these different events," Ilori said. "And I was convinced when I saw his background."
Streete-Thompson is one of only two athletes to run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds and long jump more than 28 feet. The only other athlete to accomplish the feat is nine-time Olympic gold medal winner Carl Lewis.
Streete-Thompson, a three-time Olympian, had been a volunteer assistant coach at Florida State. In 2011, Missouri head coach *Brett Halter offered him a job as a full-time assistant coach.
Ilori has had to make a fast adjustment moving to America from England and has been frustrated at times with life in his new home. Things like food and cultural terminology have made him question his decision to come to America.
"I think Europe is a much healthier continent," Ilori said. "There will also be times when I say something and my teammates won't understand me, and they will say something and I won't understand them."
In England, people treat track and field much like Americans treat baseball or football. These differences are all things that Streete-Thompson has been able to help Ilori cope with.
Streete-Thompson grew up in the Cayman Islands and did not come to America until he attended Rice University. He recalls track matches in Europe with more than 50,000 people in attendance.
"Track is very well-respected and very well-attended in Europe," Streete-Thompson said. "But Ilori has brought that culture and respect for the sport, and it is catching on with the team."
Ilori's teammates will often try to imitate his thick British accent, and Ilori enjoys doing the same back to them.
Streete-Thompson knew there would be rough times as Ilori adjusted to American culture. Only recently has Ilori felt fully confident in his decision to come to Missouri.
Ilori went to practice April 10 feeling like he had let his teammates down.
"I went to the Texas Relays, and I choked," he said. "I went to the Battle of the Bayou, and I choked."
But at practice that day, Ilori jumped, and his technique all came together.
He tweeted "Now I am certain I made the right decision."
"I turned a corner that day, and I had a revelation that Mizzou was the right decision for me," he said. "I really do love it here."