GULFPORT — Yes, track and field superstar Brittney Reese says, there are times these days when she walks the hallways of Gulfport High School, she feels a powerful sense of deja vu.
“It wasn’t that long ago, you know, I was one of these kids trying to figure it out,” Reese says.
Actually, it was 18 years ago – 2004 – when Reese graduated from Gulfport High. There are other ways to look at it. Such as: For Reese, it was four Olympics Games ago. It was three Olympic medals (one gold, two silver) ago. It was two NCAA championships at Ole Miss, 12 U.S. championships and six world championships ago. It was before she became the greatest female long jumper in history.
And now, after a professional career spent traveling the globe and leaping distances few can even imagine, Reese has returned to her hometown, to her high school, as a coach.
“It’s time to give back,”Reese says. “I’ve always said I was going to come back and try to give back to the people who have done so much for me.”
Reese is the new coach of the Gulfport girls cross country and track and field teams. She is also developing an indoor track and field program, for which she will be the head coach of both boys and girls teams.
Her mission: To help return Gulfport High track and field to the powerhouse status that the program enjoyed back when she was running and jumping and her Gulfport coach, now retired Prince Jones, was coaching championship teams seemingly year after year.
“We’ve had some success in recent years, but not to the standards Gulfport has had in the past,” says Gulfport’s new athletic director Matt Walters. “Who better to help show us the way than homegrown world champion, a living legend?”
You should know that Reese called Walters – not the other way around – about the job.
Joe Walker Jr., the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame coach who recruited Reese to Ole Miss, believes Gulfport has made a grand slam hire.
“Brittney has all the tools to be a great coach,” Walker said. “She knows the sport, has great character and always has had the perfect blend of humility and ego to coach. She has what it takes.”
What Reese needs – what any coach worth his or her stopwatch needs – are athletes. In Gulfport’s case, more athletes are needed.
As Prince Jones, the 77-year-old ex-coach puts it: “When you load a bus up full of really good athletes, it makes you a really good coach. The key is numbers.”
To that end, Reese has spent much of her first few days on the job recruiting. No, she isn’t recruiting from other schools. She is recruiting from other Gulfport sports teams: football, basketball, soccer, tennis, you name it. Her belief is that participation in track and field and cross country will help athletes in their other respective sports and vice-versa.
She is finding allies in that approach. One is Marcus Price, the new head coach of the Gulfport girls basketball team, who says, “I told my girls I wanted them to get out there and learn everything they can from her. There are so many lessons these kids can learn from her about preparation and perseverance, as well as technique. I am in awe of her myself.”
Reese, who is by nature quiet and reserved, doesn’t have to just talk a good game, either. She stands as living, breathing proof that playing more than one sport is not only possible but preferred. After all, Prince Jones once recruited her off the basketball team. She competed in basketball, track and field (jumping and sprints) and cross country. She was all-state in all.
Indeed, basketball was her primary sport even into junior college at nearby Gulf Coast.
At first, Reese ran cross country and then sprints during the track season. But Jones was short of athletes in the field events and asked for volunteers to try the long jump. “I was looking for someone who could jump at least 17 feet,” Jones says.
Several girls tried without success, Jones says. Reese said, “Coach, I can do that.”
Says Jones, “I told her you’re already running the 100, 200 and all the relays, but she said it again, ‘Coach, I can do that.’”
So Jones let her try. She jumped 17 and a half feet. I told her to try it again, and she jumped 18 and a half. Suddenly Reese had another event, one in which she would eventually set a world record and earn the nickname “Da Beast.”
Reese believes her versatility – she also high jumped – will help her in coaching. “I’ve done pretty much all of it and been around it at a high, high level,” she says.
She has also coached when she wasn’t competing. Before moving back to Gulfport, Reese lived in San Diego, where she worked out at the Olympic Training Center and coached at San Diego Mesa Community College. She also worked as a private coach for runners and jumpers.
It is an old axiom in sports that not all great athletes make great coaches. The theory is that great athletes have so much natural ability they don’t necessarily have to work as hard on fundamentals and training. But both Prince Jones and Joe Walker say Reese was a tireless worker.
Matt Walters, the athletic director, says Reese “has hit the ground running.”
“Naturally, there was a concern about how an Olympic and world champion would react to coaching high school kids,” Walters said. “She has been extremely humble and has really connected with the kids. She’s been going to all the teams on campus and the kids have embraced it. She’s going to the junior highs and even the elementary schools.”
Sixteen-year old Lania McDonald, who will run both cross country and track and field, says she can scarcely believe she will be coached by a former Olympic gold medalist from her own hometown. “I’d be crazy not to soak up as much of her knowledge as I can,” she said, calling her new coach “down to earth” and “funny.”
Reese will also help the Gulfport boys team jumpers, because, well, why would she not?
Deavious Weary, a 15-year-old, is running cross country now but plans to long jump in the spring and says he can’t wait to be coached by a former world champ. When Reese is told what Weary has said, she smiles and says, “He’s got the bounce, I can see that. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course.”
But that’s the deal: Few people in the world know more about the “a lot more to it” than Brittney Reese, who also looks forward to coaching her adopted son Alex Wilde, who is a ninth grader currently practicing with the Gulfport football team. Alex has shown some promise as a long jumper.
Reese made her last competitive jump at the Tokyo Olympics in June of 2021, winning the silver medal, coming just 1.18 inches short of the gold. She will turn 36 in September and says she knew in her heart it was time to get on with the rest of her life And she knew where she wanted to live it – and what she wanted to do.
She says she is proudest of “my longevity, to be as successful as I was for as long as I was. I was at the top or near the top of the world for more than 10 years. I can’t complain in any way about my career.”
As for the move across the continent back to Gulfport, Reese says, “San Diego was nice, really expensive, but really nice. But this is home. I’ve got family and so many friends here. This is where I want to live. Every day that I have been back has re-enforced it was the right decision to me.”